1 April 2006
Art Monthly (Issue 295 p.7-10)

David Briers celebrates documentary art that transfigures the everyday.

Making History‘, the valuable survey at Tate Liverpool of the impact of documentary practice on British art since the 30s, is as much about the impact of British artists on documentary practice as the other way around.

As Tate acknowledges, there has been ‘a sustained, though complex and changing dialogue between art and documentary in Britain that continues today’, and despite the inclusiveness of the exhibited material, it is impossible to resist identifying some of the numerous tributaries, underground streams, and silted creeks into which the exhibition might have gone.

A rule of thumb that you could use to trace a route through the ‘Making History’ exhibition could be to divide the exhibits into two sorts: those that document in some ways unique historical events, and those that document insignificant, everyday events, conferring upon them an unwonted status, even transfiguring them. The latter class includes notably the exhibits related to Mass-Observation, founded by Humphrey Jennings, Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson in 1937. Hijacking the scientifically objective matrices deployed by sociologists to collect documentary data (though of course, none of them was a trained anthropologist or sociologist), they deployed these like the literal hand-held framing devices used to view picturesque landscape subjects in the 18th Century. The photographs and submitted diary texts from volunteer observers that were selected by Mass-Observation for publication were like sociological found objects, evoking Jeff Nuttall’s 1979 venture at a definition of performance art as ‘the human being and his behaviour used as a found object’. The people in Humphrey Spender’s 30s photograph of Pram ride in the park stand as if posed, like the sentinel figures in a Delvaux painting. They might be carrying out the instructions for Tom Phillips’s Postcard Composition, Opus 11 No.1, 1970, which read: ‘Buy a postcard. Assume that it depicts the performance of a piece. Deduce the rules of the piece. Perform it’.

Humphrey Jennings’ short-lived and fashionable formal engagement with Surrealism is well known, while for Charles Madge, Mass-Observation was as much a kind of poetry as scientific sociology. Jennings and Madge’s collage-documentary text May the Twelfth: Mass Observation day surveys 1937, including such things as the diary of a man who, on the day of George VI’s coronation observes a dead daddy long legs on his windowsill, anoints himself in hair oil, and spends the day arranging boxes on shelves, certainly comprises a Surreal disruption of the orthodox historiographies of state events. Nigel Henderson, who was familiar with the photographic images accrued by Mass-Observation, reflected their surreal aspect in his own photographs of street life, as subsequently the photographs of Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr were to do. You will currently find at entry for Mass-Observation in popular dictionaries of sociology, but not in dictionaries of art. But with the acceptance into mainstream current art practice of process-based and text-centred work, Mass-Observation is on the verge of finding its way fully into the visual art world as a component of avant-garde Modernism.

Never intending to site its activities discretely within an academic loop, the publications that appeared under the Mass-Observation name were popular and democratic in tone. Mass-Observation hit a national nerve and became a household name. However, just as the early British documentary film-makers who also feature in ‘Making History’ had to teach themselves how to make films, in its earliest phase Mass-Observation was a hybrid, collaborative, home-made project.

The 30s Mass-Observation activities and publications have much in common with a later genre of non-gallery based art in the 60s and 70s. These ephemeral artworks ironically applied the methodological matrices of sociological research, and bureaucratic formats to apparently banal everyday occurrences. This technique was also used by writers at this time, including the experimental novelist B S Johnson, the five sections of whose 1973 book Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry each close with a page of double-entry bookkeeping accounts in which the eponymous protagonist attempts to balance the positive and negative daily events of his life (a technique later adopted in Bridget Jones’s Diary).

Most of this activity was a spin-off from hard-core Conceptual Art like the obsessive documenting of Stanley Brouwn or On Kawara, though very few of the artists concerned became part of canon of that movement, largely because this pre-digital rhizome culture, international in nature, was often distributed freely as barter. You might, for example, have been on of the 200 persons who received and invitation form the Belgian artist Maurice Roquet (aka ‘theatre mental’), to participate in his Inventory No.1, 1972, requiring registering on a form, the contents of your pockets at the time you open the envelope. If you participated, you would subsequently receive a statistical breakdown of the pocket contents of all recipients, comparing the contents of their opposing left and right pockets.

Or you might have been the recipient of one of the ‘audience response cards’ from General Idea in Toronto, inviting the dispatch by return of ‘a photograph of the inside of your refrigerator for our survival file’, responses published in General Idea’s magazine FILE, 1972. Through them, perhaps, you might also have become aware of the Fluxus artist-philosopher Robert Filliou’s proposal for The Eternal Network, 1970, an artists’ network that was to promote ‘as alternative performances, such things as private parties, weddings, divorces, funerals, factory work, trips around town in buses, anti-Vietnam manifestations, bars, churches etc’. this echoes the Mass-Observation manifesto of January 1937, often instance as an implicitly surrealist text-poem, listing as examples of things that might be observed: ‘Behaviour of people at wall memorials / Shouts and gestures of motorists / The aspidistra cult / Anthropology of football pools / Bathroom behaviour / Beards, armpits, eyebrows…’

There arose an identifiably British variety of such activity, shot through with humour and influenced by popular entertainment and the particularities of everyday life in postwar urban Britain. Never thoroughly investigated, the history of these currently disregarded manifestations would have to take on board an interrogation of a field of activity that encompassed such things as Stephen Potter’s Lifemanship, 1950, guides, I-Spy Books, The Goon Show and Candid Camera.

The British mail artist Robin Crozier (1936-2001) described himself as ‘the eternal observer’ participating in ‘a network of observation’. For many years Crozier maintained a ‘memory / memorandum project’, sending all his correspondents a form on which to document their memory of a particular given date. Those who returned the form would receive someone else’s previously documented memory. At the time of Crozier’s death the project comprised over 8000 preserved and tabulated individual memories (now in the Getty Archive). The beautifully produced ephemera of Brian Lane (1943-2000) included the Fog Log series of booklets, which faithfully reprinted entries from the logs of famous Artic explorers, but only those describing days upon which visibility was entirely obscured by fog.

Better known are the anecdotal diary works made from the mid 60s by Ian Breakwell (1943-2005). Taking various forms – texts, drawings, photographic montages, TV films – these diaries were framed from the viewpoint of an impersonal observer. Serving to contest the category of the ‘everyday’, Breakwell’s acute, concise observations of trivial but contextually eccentric events drew parallels with the absurdity present in much variety entertainment at that of Dada, Fluxus and performance art. As Tanya Barson, the curator ‘Making History’ says one of the factors ‘critical to any understanding of documentary practice’ is ‘the impact of the politics of social observation: the position of the author / observer and their relationship to the observed, who is frequently located in a site of social of cultural alterity’. The apparently aimless movements of the socially marginalised that were often documented in Breakwell’s diaries, such as The Walking Man Diary, 1975-78, engaged with alterity in a way that was politically counter to the locus of the founders of Mass-Observation. You only have to listen to sound archive clips of their utterly middle-class accents to realise why they employed a ‘translator’ in Bolton.

The chain of influences between the cultural climate that created Mass-Observation and the circumstances that brought about these later forms of observational art were discontinuous and divergent. The wider familiarity of a new generation of visual artists with Mass-Observation only happened during the early 80s, when photographic exhibitions drawn from the Mass-Observation archive began to be seen in arts centres and other public gallery spaces. It is more likely that Breakwell was influenced in the framing of his work, initially at least, by John Cage and the Fluxus artists who had been taught by Cage in New York in the 50s (Mass-Observation as an organisation has been as eccentric, hybrid, resistant to facile definition, and long-abiding in its various incarnations as Fluxus). Cage’s lecture performance piece Indeterminacy, 1959 comprises up to 90 true short stories, most of them provoking laughter in a Zen way. Cage’s carefully timed deadpan accounts of oblique incidental occurrences such as watching an automated pen going haywire in the window of a stationery shop in a deserted city street, tearing the paper on which it was writing to shreds at spattering ink everywhere; or his Aunt Marge’s remark, while doing her laundry, ‘you know, I love this machine much more than I do your Uncle Walter’, are curiously equivalent to some of the diary entries published by Mass-Observation.

The last part of the ‘Making History’ exhibition features art made since 1990 that questions the parameters of historiography, including works by Jeremy Deller and Nathan Coley. But referring again to the two essential strands within the exhibition, this part of ‘Making History’ might equally have included the works created for ‘Day-to-Day Data’, another current project realised in three ‘domains’ – a national touring exhibition, a website and a publication designed to look like a red-bound desk diary. Curated by the artist Ellie Harrison (for the Angel Row Gallery, Nottingham), ‘Day-to-Day Data‘ brings together the work of 20 predominantly British artists who, like Mass-Observation share ‘a scientific approach’ to collecting and analysing ‘the data of everyday life’.

Just as Humphrey Jennings described in painstaking objective detail his morning ablutions as his Mass-Observation ‘day report’ in April 1937, Ellie Harrison, aka the Daily Data Logger, documents and analyses ‘the small, insignificant events from within her own daily routine’. Helen Frosi displays the result of her studies into whether winning Lottery numbers are hidden ‘with the minutiae of her everyday routine’ like Koranic auguries in a tomato. Tim Taylor ritualistically collects data about his tea drinking habits, while Richard Dedomenici has identified a meaningful concentration of nail salons in a belt around London. Sam Curtis has set about personally counting every single person in the UK. Appropriating the visual models of scientific, commercial and political research, the outcome of these investigations is mapped with elegantly conceived, immaculately executed diagrams, pie charts, graphs, maps and forms to fill in that are as alluring as Inland Revenue self assessment returns.

But rather than removing the subjects of the eccentric analyses from their material contexts and converting them into anemic abstractions, the effect is the opposite. As Ben Highmore points out regarding ‘Day-to-Day Data’, ‘Probably to one element that unites all these artists is a vigorous emphasis on materiality – on the stuffness of stuff… The artists of ‘Day-to-Day Data’ are crusaders fighting the abstracting impulses of sociological quantifiers and market researchers alike’. Ellie Harrison tells us that ‘the application of a scientific or methodical approach to objects, events or experiences which a normal scientist (or normal person for that matter) may well overlook, can lead to an absurd or humorous new vision of the everyday life we are all accustomed to’. In his essay for ‘Day-to-Day Data’, Kris Cohen asks us ‘Are they serious, these artists? Better perhaps to ask: what exactly are they serious about? At what is their humour directed?’ Cohen posits that like the blogging phenomenon, which tends not to be taken seriously, such activities represent ‘the individual’s capacity to act in or on public life – to influence the systems which seem, on the contrary, to encompass and define us’.

A subsidiary thread of the ‘Making History’ exhibition is its attempt to identify the particular Britishness of documentary forms of art. For several generations the perfectly serious articulation of absurdist humour has characterised non-gallery based genres of British art such as postally distributed art and the overlapping area of performance art groups (the early People Show, the John Bull Puncture Repair Kit, and Ddart for example). This humour has infiltrated and informed much British art with a critical documentary dimension. The humour of Gilbert & George has a similar pedigree (the novelist and cultural commentator Michael Bracewell has identified in their œuvre the temperament for Mass-Observation), as does a work like Gillian Wearing’s video of motionless police officers, Sixty Minutes Silence, 1996 (Wearing’s first USA survey exhibition in 2003 was titled ‘Mass-Observation’). Although aligning itself with the fairly humourless digital ethos of the theoretical wing of new media art and participatory online cultures, most of the work in ‘Day-to-Day Data’ is situated directly in line with this more venerable strain of British art.

David Briers