Carey Young: Nothing Ventured

John Slyce

First published in 'Fig-1', the commemorative catalogue of the London-based project space. Tate / Spafax publishing, London, 2001.

Call Centre: Good afternoon, Carey Young, Nothing Ventured. Are you a member of the press, a prospective customer or is this a general enquiry?
Caller: General enquiry.
Call Centre: OK, I can offer you a range of information. Would you like biographical information, previous exhibitions or themes and influences or reviews and review quotes?
Caller: Oh, I dunno. Review quotes?
Call Centre: Can I take your name please sir?
Call Centre: OK. Carey Young's work has been reviewed in Art Monthly, the Guardian and Mute. A quote from Mute: "Young's work retains a ludic approach that should not be written-off as co-opted."
Caller: OK.
Call Centre: Would you like any other information?
Caller: No, that's all thanks.
Call Centre: Right, thank you for calling. Bye.

When I first read this transcript from Carey Young's fig-1 exhibition, I recoiled from the quoted author's use of the word ludic. Perhaps it was a feeling that this word, somewhat arcane and remote in meaning, curtailed the exchange and prompted the caller to reel back into the folds of his or her everyday. The real problem, though, was deeply ingrained in my own readerly unconscious. Play is a dirty word, is it not? It connotes idleness, immaturity, and the absence of seriousness and substance. A ludic approach would be one that is undirected, given to spontaneity and essentially without purpose. While this characterization does not agree with my understanding of Young's practice, I am equally certain Young would not object to someone interpreting her approach as ludic, or playful. Indeed, she lifted this quote from a review and intentionally included it in Nothing Ventured, within the call centre's data bank of scripted responses [1].

Carey Young's research is clearly purposeful and her investigations into the processes that structure our world are thoughtfully directed. The complexity of her projects – designed as 'insertions' that, rather than intervening in given patterns of communication and exchange, are threaded into an existing contextual fabric – not only allow for, but foster an intensity of multivalent readings and reactions [2]. These dialogical and parcipatory scenarios, which centre on extrapolated processes, question the very notions of worth, play, and creativity that we each hold, and are exchanged between the overlapping spheres of culture and commerce. Let's call her approach here one of controlled play, but one conditioned by an openness toward outcome, as well as a willingness to sit back and watch it all happen.

Everywhere as playground + Everyone an artist

Two lines. The first culled from Allan Kaprow in his essay The Education of the Un-Artist, Part II from 1972. The second, is a line from an untitled statement made by Joseph Beuys in 1973.

Kaprow's 'everywhere as playground' maps out the spatial domain for his proposed model of the un-artist. For Kaprow, a new name may assist social change. "Only when active artists willingly cease to be artists can they convert their abilities, like dollars into yen, into something the world can spend: play." [3]Play, here no longer a dirty word, becomes a creative and conceptually-rich educational currency. The un-artist, in his or her new role as educator, need simply play as he or she once did under the banner of art, but now among those who do not care about that. Gradually, the pedigree 'art' will recede into irrelevance.

To follow, the 'work of art' need no longer serve as a moral paradigm for an exhausted work ethic. The emphasis here is on method rather than medium. Method permits an engagement with meanings and experiences that exist outside of art. Method offers compelling ways for players to participate in structured processes that can reveal new values, including the value of play. And this can equally take place in the gallery or the arcade, the call centre, or the corporate boardroom.

Beuys's line is an extension of the concept of sculpture to the kind of invisible and plastic materials used by everyone to mould and shape thoughts into words. Thinking and spoken forms give rise to social structure, or – "how we mould and shape the world in which we live: Sculpture as an evolutionary process; everyone an artist." [4] Beuys employed sculpture as a spatial metaphor for the interrelatedness of society. Here it is method, or process, which renders transparent the relationship between thought, behaviour, and social systems. The residual and highly educational output here is termed social sculpture. This is itself a product of the plastic dimension of thought and its connection to action in the social construction of the life-world. Everywhere a playground, and everyone an artist engaged in participatory play therein.

Creative work = play

Playing is not to be confused with gaming. Game theory is predicated on winners and losers. Play, on the other hand, while at times sharing clear structures and occasionally enhanced by special skills, offers satisfaction in continuous participation as its own end. Nothing Ventured was not a win-lose proposition. Which is not to say the stakes for Young were not somewhat high.

This show constituted her first solo exhibition, and a real opportunity for high-profile exposure. In the 1960s and early '70s, a first generation of conceptual artists dealt with the lack of a pre-established artistic persona through critical, self-legitimating philosophical writings which stood as guarantor of the right to nominate their work as 'art'. [5] Amongst Young's own generation of practitioners, particularly those associated with the passing 'young British artist' phase, the establishment of an artistic persona and right to nomination is most often handled on the hoof within the contentious frame of the mass media and tabloid press. InNothing Ventured, Young chose to foreground exactly those representational and promotional energies associated with a 'white cube' gallery space by transferring the management and delivery of such activities onto the genericised business interface of a call centre. Here Young was not working with a representation of situations or processes, but self-reflexively, with the actual situation or process itself – that of promoting a show, artist, and career through the medium of a call centre.

Young deployed the call centre as an ironically-positioned readymade. It is through irony that quotation gains a critical force. One speaks with two voices, establishing a kind of triangulation between the source of quotation, the quoter, and the receiver. Inflection is as much at play as ventriloquy when one taps into the authority of the quote. Young's use of irony here was twofold: the call-centre-as-readymade being a quasi-avant garde gesture in itself, but one which also referred to familiar themes - the dematerialisation of the art object and artistic identity. As a form of address, the call centre quotes from one of the most familiar 'interfaces' a consumer has with a business. Perhaps most significantly, Nothing Ventured evidenced the conditions of consumer attention shared in the reception of contemporary art and the market outreach of a service-based or 'information' economy.

Venture Conceptualist

A dialectical tension infused Nothing Ventured. As an insertion [6] , the process was most fully realised when the participants (either caller, call centre agent, or both) exerted their own authority over the script. [7] Authorship, like ownership, exists in tension with anonymity. Nothing Ventured, while ostensibly a 'no-risk' career opportunity for Young, existed most firmly as an 'art work' to the extent that people participated fully in the process. Here Young's own anonymity was of crucial and critical importance. Her total signifying activity in the gallery was limited to a desk, chair, and phone. A visitor's book and dramatic lighting joined with the above elements to complete the scenario. (A scenario being a spatial and temporal occurrence proposed both as a text and something that is materially constructed.) The press release the artist wrote for Nothing Ventured is the text which set this process in motion. Actual material elements were only added to make manifest the kind of abstractions that capital – in both its financial and cultural expression – relies upon. The space of Nothing Ventured is a contradictory space. Gallery and call centre collapse as one when (as fully documented in the call transcripts) the caller asks if he can buy the phone. As Henri Lefrebvre noted in The Production of Space, "The space that homogenizes thus has nothing homogeneous about it." All the rest, including this essay, is just part of an ongoing data trail.

[1] A call centre is "a place where a number of telephone operators are gathered together to take orders on behalf of a company, or to answer customers' queries. Most call centres are part of a large corporation and are used exclusively by its customers and staff. But some work as independent organisations and have a number of different clients." Hindle, Tim, in Pocket International Business Terms (London: Economist Books) 1998, 35.
[2] Allan Kaprow, 'The Education of the Un-Artist, Part II', in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press), 1993, 125.
[3] Joseph Beuys, untitled statement (c. 1973), in Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1979), 7; reprinted in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press), 1996, 633-634.
[4] See Peter Osborne, "Conceptual art and/as philosophy", in Philosophy in Cultural Theory, (London: Routledge), 2000, 86-102. Self-curation is a generationally shared source of crisis for the establishment of artistic persona.
[5] Young's practice of 'insertions' bears a fecund relation to Cildo Meireles's conception of Inserçoes em circuitos ideológicos (Insertions into ideological circuits) developed as a means for the circulation and exchange of information that does not depend on any kind of centralized control. Central to Meireles's elaboration of the 'insertion', and Young's specific application of this concept in Nothing Ventured, is the adoption of the circuit as a readymade medium and container that always carries its own conditions, or ideology with it-such as the residue that clings to an empty bottle. The insertion then constitutes a new agent that will react dialectically with the host site, or container and its residual content. See Cildo Meireles, "Statement" in Conceptual Art: a Critical Anthology, Alex Alberro and Blake Stimson, eds. (London: MIT Press), 1999, 410-412.
[6] According to Young's collated data, 40% of the visitors tempted the agents into conversations that deviated from the script, while 60% of this art audience 'behaved' and followed the prompts offered by the agents. No figures are, as of yet, available on the frequency of the agents' deviation, though those moments when they clearly go beyond the frame of the script are inspired examples of the modes of business and art being immanent in each other.
[7] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (London: Blackwell), 1999, 308.