An interview with associate John Kieffer

Talk to me a little about where you come to the Associates from.

I come from a working-class background. I didn’t go to university, and through a whole set of circumstances I ended up in Brighton for a few years, where I worked in a bookshop – a kind of 60s/70s-style book shop with everything from critical theory to philosophy to vegan cookbooks, all bundled up together. It wasn’t in the shopping area, it was a street full of the backs of restaurants, so you’d get all kinds of people coming in; some coming to get their morning paper and some coming to get their Baudrillard and their Marx. We opened the basement up, which was tiny, and we started putting on performances and exhibitions. It also used to be used as a crèche for children and a meeting space for artists, trade unionists and the local community.

What was interesting about this was that it became an environment where people were meeting each other who would never normally have met each other at all. I think the chances of people encountering anybody now who’s not just like them, in any kind of meaningful way has been kind of removed from life. It seems to me that before we start making work in this situation, we’ve actually got to start creating environments where people can really engage with each other; environments which have nothing to do with experiencing art, necessarily.

My favourite story from the bookshop, I think, was when one morning, before opening up, I could hear people talking and laughing on a bench just outside. I opened the door and on the bench there were three people: there was a woman who worked in the local hotel who liked our dog and used to bring him plates of eggs and bacon for breakfast; there was a guy who was homeless who came in once a week to have a shower; and there was William Burroughs, the writer, just sitting on a bench together having a conversation. And I thought this is heaven, really. They were chatting away to each other and when I told them that they could come in, they were too busy talking to care. I think the chance of those three people, their equivalents, coming to encounter each other anywhere is almost impossible now.

So I suppose for the last few years that kind of stuff has been consuming me, thinking about how to get people together. Especially in the arts, of course, where it’s all about access and outreach – which is fine. But there’s got to be something before that that takes place. I suppose what’s happened with the digital realm has kind of let us down a bit. It’s actually allowed people to funnel into themselves.

So it’s all about how you can – in a city like London where almost all space has been privatised – start creating almost totally informal spaces where people can encounter each other. It’s so rare to find spaces with the potential for these kinds of random encounters. I’m less concerned, at least in an immediate way, with creating opportunities for artists and making work, and more concerned with different kinds of spaces.

Right – that has to come before the art. In what I’ve read of yours, you talk a lot about a kind of ‘third space’ or ‘third way’, as if there’s got to be a way of working beyond the sort of binary modes of thinking that dictate say, an art space or a not-art space; a space where things can mingle and where spontaneity can happen.

Exactly. And you know that was the great thing about – it rarely happened actually, but when it did happen – working internationally at the British Council. Extraordinary things usually happened by accident. It’s when something happens that wasn’t intended for the project or the artwork that makes things interesting. But of course it’s incredibly difficult to simulate accidental encounters.

These spaces seem to be ones that you can’t plan, which can’t have definitive aims or goals, or things that you know will be evaluated in a certain way. That obviously makes them really difficult to fund, because you can’t say exactly what’s going to happen. But these spaces of spontaneous potential are the spaces we need. Do you think there’s a way round it; that these spaces can be created, or do they have to just come about organically?

I think you can do it in different ways. One of the best projects I’ve been involved with was the Theaster Gates project, ‘Sanctum’, which was just amazing – this was when I was chair of Situations in Bristol. It was beautifully designed, immaculately planned; there was a year run up to the actual event. Then on my last visit, when I went down to the space, and I think there was a group of children playing instruments with some buskers or something… And there was this table covered in stuff, like little toys and elephants and cakes – a lot of cakes – and strange little objects. And I said, ‘what’s that, what’s that about? Is that lost property or something?’ and they said, ‘well we thought it was, but then we found that people had been coming to the space and leaving stuff behind on purpose, especially children,’ which was really interesting. They would run after people to say you’ve left this toy behind and they’d say ‘no, we wanted to, because we liked it and we wanted to say thank you’.

That’s so lovely!

‘Gifting’, where you leave an offering behind if you like something, is quite common in range of different cultures. Nobody asked people to do it, but at the end of it there were all these strange little things. To me that was very interesting, because that means it got inside people’s lives and had a different kind of meaning to them than just an arts event. That kind of captured it, for me. So that was a mixture of an incredibly well designed project but also some accident in there as well. And you know, sometimes, you can just get an artist whose work is just so powerful that it creates unusual responses in people.

Yeah. But you’ve got to make space for accidents to happen.

Exactly, it is about how you can create a different kind of environment for things to happen. And I think a lot of things that are talked about now as being immersive are just not, for me. To me it feels very old, like the performance-based stuff which was around in the 60s and 70s; it doesn’t do it for me at all… It’s been quite a long time since I’ve seen a piece of work which really felt like it was coming from Mars. And that will happen, I think, but it feels like now, especially if you talk about performance-based work, everyone’s doing very similar kinds of work.

Do you think that’s something to do with the limitations of the funding system?

Yes, but it’s also because people tend to come from the same sort of background. I do think there’s a real need to start seriously diversifying the sector, and not just because this is a good thing to do, but because I think it affects the work, actually. Different people bring different things to the work; different experiences. There’s something to be said for really breaking things open. But that’s not going to happen in the short term, unless people really really want it to happen.

The question of responsibility is an important one when it comes to participatory practice and regeneration. There can obviously be a whole load of exploitation that goes on; a whole lot of risk. I’m wondering, how far should one feel responsible for the outcomes of a project; the way a community feels about it?

It depends on where you’re doing it. There’s nothing wrong with putting on a show, because in a way people know what their respective roles are – it’s a bit like the circus coming to town. I think if you’ve got to the point where people are expecting you to include part of their lived experience in your work, then you start getting towards the level where you’ve got a lot of responsibility – to not just use them as material for the work. It’s about consistency, and about spending time; if you’re doing work which is time-based to some extent you really do need that long-running process, and that incredibly long follow-up for it. You need to demonstrate that you haven’t just dropped by, that you want this to be a relationship and not just a one night stand.

You’re not going to disappear once the project is over.

When I was involved with Artangel it was clear that Jeremy Deller stayed in contact with the families from Orgreave well after the reconstruction took place and the film was made – it didn’t stop at the end of the project. There was a long run up to that as well. You need to do that; you need to say ‘I’m not going away at the end of things’. We’ve been talking, at Situations, for example, about having a prologue and epilogue to each project.

That’s a nice way of putting it. This focus on ‘spending time’ with a project feels like it’s to do with care, which is such an important consideration when working with people and communities. I found it poignant, in one of your pieces, when you were writing about when all the public funding disappeared in Greece, but nobody cared. Do you think the reaction would be the same if that happened now, here?

It could easily happen. And I think it’s very fragile, in the same kind of way. I mean, at the time when the arts funding went, the public had other things to worry about, and a lot of artists in Greece suddenly realised they needed to have a different relationship to the public; to almost make themselves useful, in a way. Not in a ‘we’ll come and paint your house’ kind of way, of course. But often the response to a recession is that artists will all get together; they’ll all form a studio block; they’ll take over spaces and start to gentrify an area – which can make things even worse for the rest of the community!  And, rather than doing that, they said, ‘we’ll put ourselves in different environments, maybe sharing a space with a dentist or something, or a shoemaker’. And if that situation happened here… I feel like the public like the idea of culture, but whether they’d actually go to the wall and defend arts funding with other stuff going on as well that’s going to affect them – I think that’s very unlikely.

And that’s where participatory practice can actually play a really vital role.

It should be at the cutting edge of that, definitely. I think the other thing about participatory work is that quite often people working in that kind of area just don’t understand people’s culture. There’s still this notion that somehow you’re making up for some sort of deficit in what their cultural life is, rather than really finding out where they’re coming from and what their interest is. Nobody has no culture. For instance if you’re working with young people it’s about understanding a little bit where they’re coming from and what they’re interested in, before thinking about how you’d involve that in whatever you’re trying to do yourself. And quite often artists should know more about that than they do. It’s absolutely crucial. It’s also important to talk about it more, because when major institutions start talking about participatory work it’s always an annex to their main concern.

Finally, I wanted to ask you about your role with the Associates, and how you approach public art in the context of urban regeneration?

In a way, because we’re always looking for clients to make work, it’s going to be difficult to feed these ideas into it. We’ve talked a bit about how rather than responding to a brief you can start writing the brief yourself, and actually saying to someone ‘this is what we want to do – we are aware this isn’t going to chime with what you want to do necessarily, but if we can get somewhere close to doing some of this…’ I think in terms of talking to people – developers and local authorities, for instance – about space, an important aim is to try and stop them over-programming every inch of space all the time. Perhaps it’s about leaving some of that space, not to put artists in necessarily, but just to put the public in in a different way.

This interview was conducted by Chloe Carroll, a writer and curator based in London. She is currently on the Curating Contemporary Art MA at the Royal College of Art, and is undertaking a research project with the Associates centring around participatory arts practice and urban regeneration.