Pilvi Takala discusses her Emdash Award Frieze Project ”The Committee” with Ali MacGilp
Could you tell me briefly about the context of the Emdash award and your project at this year’s Frieze Art Fair?
The proposal I made for the Emdash Award was very much related to its context, the requirement to produce a new piece specifically for the Frieze Art Fair. The art fair as a context made me think about issues of value and how we define value within the art world, but I didn’t want to make work that would only comment on the art world, or a work that would just be relevant inside the fair. My main concern was to find a way to extend outside the fair with the piece and to make something that could be understood and appreciated by anyone, regardless of their knowledge of the art world or their access to Frieze. The Emdash Award is basically an opportunity to produce new work with a budget of £10,000, and I thought of ways to move that opportunity outside the fair and have the value of that amount of money to be defined in a completely different context. The Emdash budget is there to balance the art fair that is essentially about buying and selling art, to have something that has greater symbolic value than market value, to make the fair more interesting. I wanted to make sure that the £10,000 would not only allow production of a non commercial artwork, but also produce value directly somewhere outside the art world. So I proposed giving the production budget to a committee of kids to spend as they like, without any restrictions.
I chose children as the group to decide on the budget, because children are not used to dealing with such large budgets or having to make a decisions on anything significant. Children are legally not responsible and are a powerless group of people, regardless of their background. Also children don’t have pre-existing conventions about how to make decisions in a group. My big interests in my practice are behaviour and how we create rules amongst each other. So putting a group of people in a situation where they are forced to express their values and negotiate them between each other, as well as to come up with a fair way to make a decision, was exiting. To be able to organise this, I needed to keep some of the budget, but the final set up was that the kids had £7,000 to spend as they liked, still a massive budget in their eyes and something that would be funny to spend on candy.
How did you select the group of children you worked with?
I basically just wanted to work with any kids who are not directly related to the art world or Frieze, so no collectors kids or Frieze employees’ kids. We thought of working with a youth club, a place where kids go in their free time voluntarily and that would be in their neighbourhood. Someone in the Frieze production team knew someone who knew a youth club leader that they thought might understand the project and be up for helping. So we got in touch with Martin King who runs the Eastside and Tredegar under 13s youth group in Bow and he asked kids in his group if they’d like to take part. I originally thought the best age would be ten to twelve, but as the kids in Martin’s group were eight to twelve and some eight and nine year olds wanted to take part, I included younger kids as well.
What other ideas were discussed before the children decided to create a giant bouncy house?
The Committee Magazine
Here are the workshop notes that include the list of initial ideas, subsequent ideas and some discussion points. This ‘magazine’ was made to give to the kids as something to take home during the process, not for public distribution, so it’s an internal committee document.
How did the children arrive at their decision? Did they come up with a democratic process to make the decision?
Frieze Foundation / Emdash Award
They seemed to naturally strive for consensus, meaning that they wanted to find a decision that would be approved by everyone in the group. They knew about voting and used it as a tool, but their attitude towards it was more to use it as an indicator than a final decision-making tool. I introduced them to graded voting, which is even a better way to gain information about preferences in the group. I also encouraged individual brainstorming, writing down ideas alone before discussing them in a group, to help get all possible ideas on the table. Also all the kids preferred to spend the money on one big thing together rather than split it up. Splitting would have got them out of the problematic of making a decision together, but none of them seemed to prefer that, they rather tried to work together, although it was frustrating at times. Some would have approved of splitting it in an extreme situation, where a consensus decision would be impossible to reach, but even then they would only split it in half and have two different projects. Everyone thought splitting the money between eleven kids would be a waste, except for maybe one kid, but he was convinced by the others to support a joint project.
One idea that was on the table since the first day was a mini city, which was a very popular idea but over time was challenged by a custom-made bouncy castle. In the final vote, the bouncy house won 9-1, the one person who voted for the mini city was the kid whose idea it had been, but he said that he was also up for making a bouncy house and not against it, if others wanted it. One kid told me afterwards that they also kind of preferred the mini city, but that consensus was more important than their preference, so they voted for the bouncy house. So, consensus being important, we can imagine how much of the decision-making procedure was affected by group dynamics. It wasn’t obvious, though, that some kids would have more power than others, the dynamics were far more complicated than that. To me it seemed that the popular ideas were actually better, and most kids were ready to abandon their own idea and support and get excited by someone else’s better idea without any trouble.
How did the children respond to visiting the Frieze Art Fair?
The Bouncy House at Frieze Art Fair
These kids enjoy seeing anything new, they are very curious, so coming to the fair was exciting for them. They enjoyed looking at art and presenting their own project to the audience. Some kids in the group were so into handing out flyers and advertising the bouncy house that they kept doing it non-stop the whole day, in and outside the fair.
What challenges did you face in realising this project?
I had never done anything like this before, I haven’t even worked with children in any more traditional way, so putting my very simple idea: ‘let the kids decide how to spend the budget’ into practice posed many questions. It was necessary to have support from Frieze, firstly to make it possible to do such a project legally in the UK. We hired Polly Brannan to work with me, so I had an educator on board to help me and deal with risk assessments and all the other bureaucracy that goes along with involving children in anything. It was also crucial that Martin King, the youth club leader supported the project, helped provide the space and was in contact with the kids’ parents.
The main challenge was to set up the situation for the kids’ decision-making. To find a good way to organise the workshop so I wouldn’t be giving the kids any ideas, but that they would have some kind of structure to work within. Adults who have experience of working with kids are used to working in a very structured way; keeping as much under control as possible and guiding the kids constantly. I wanted to work with less guidance and planning, which I then had to negotiate for. The main questions were, whether it was fair not to give the kids examples and educate them about art or other possible uses of the money, and how many ground rules to have for the project. I wanted to stick to the one rule only, which was that the kids had to decide how to spend the money as a group, even if they chose a dictator among themselves or to share the money, so they would be free to explore and exploit that rule. I just wanted to have a starting point where each kid was equally powerful in the group. I also felt like we could trust the kids to come up with ideas without us ‘inspiring’ them, and that showing them examples would be wrong. That would send them the message that that was what I would like them to do with the money and they would feel obliged to please me, because I was so kind as to give them my budget.
So I had to push for trusting the kids to have ideas and to be able to deal with the challenge, and not take on more rules, like telling the kids that the money couldn’t be shared or spent on domestic items like food. I guess it would have underlined class differences in the context of Frieze if the kids happened to spend the budget on food and washing machines. Another suggestion was not to tell the kids about the money right at the beginning so they wouldn’t get too excited, but instead talk to them about making a project together. This, to me, would have been dishonest and would have lowered the stakes significantly, making my project less interesting. Also I wanted to make the kids’ position within my work clear to them. I give them the money, but then I observe how they decide to spend it and that is the content of my work. I felt like the deal was fair that way.
So I kept the rules simple, but we still needed some structure for the kids to work within. The main purpose of having a workshop was to create a group out of these kids who didn’t all know each other, and to make them feel safe so they could be more free and creative, and to provide good conditions for them to take up the challenge. The best way to do this was not by spending a week of the summer holidays sitting in a meeting room, so we included outings to places chosen by the kids in the programme to get fresh air and to do something together.
The main challenge during the workshop was trying to make sure the adults didn’t influence the kids in their decision-making and brainstorming. It was easy for me not to show my opinions on the kids’ ideas, but for the other adults it came more naturally to indirectly express whether they like an idea or not, even without noticing they were doing it. So during the workshop I often wished I could have controlled the other adults’ behaviour more, but I also found myself to be over-paranoid about the kids being open to influence. The kids were smart enough to understand the rules, that the money was theirs alone and to ignore the adults’ opinions. The whole project also happened in the context of the youth centre, so it is clear that its values and the influence of the youth club leader were reflected in the group.
Did you gain any insights into the current political situation in the UK through working with these young people?
It was quite clear from the start that the kids had many complaints about their area not being safe enough and not having enough things for them to do. They thought more policemen were needed to control violence and the youth club was also only open two nights a week, which they thought was not enough. The local fire station was about to be closed too, which was something the kids were trying to protest against. So working with these kids it was very obvious that there had been cuts in public funding.
How does realising and presenting a project at an art fair compare to doing so in a biennial context?
Although the opening week of a biennial might be very much like an art fair week in a city, a fair is still clearly an event rather than an exhibition. There seems to be an intensity of so many things happening within a short amount of time compared to a biennial, especially in a form of money changing hands. The moments just before the fair opened to the first VIPs was interesting, the first announcement said something like this ‘The Frieze Art Fair will open in ten minutes. Make sure that all your art is within your gallery booth and that there is no garbage on the corridors’. Then the same one five minutes later and finally when the gates opened, all the VIPs rushing in, half running. A biennial opening its doors would be a bit less dramatic.
The event nature of a fair allowed different possibilities for the format of the work. For a biennial, I would have tried to exhibit something, whereas my Frieze project still hasn’t taken a final form as an art work, in fact the process is still going on, the bouncy house is in production. It’s typical of a lot of my work to be able to travel just as a spoken/written narrative, but especially with this project one of the main ways for the audience to encounter it was through newspapers, magazines, short video clips on the Frieze website or rumours. This was possible, because Frieze draws a lot of media attention and on top of that the context of the Emdash Award offered a way for the story of my piece to travel and be talked about without the audience necessarily seeing a finished artwork. Depending on what day you visited the fair, you might have encountered the children themselves advertising their own bouncy house business, or an empty committee room with either a countdown to the announcement of the committee’s decision and a video of the kids talking about their ideas, or a video of the kids talking about their decision, or you might have been approached by someone asking if you wanted to make a bet on what the committee would decide. Of course I could have done something similar in a biennial context, instead of exhibiting a finished art work, but the fair’s short duration seemed to support this kind of event format. I have gathered a lot of material during this process and probably, after all this is over, I’ll find a way to make an art work out of some of the it that can be exhibited in a fixed format, but that won’t be the same piece as the Frieze project.
The Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat wrote about the project and the kids’ decision and a TV programme Hyvät ja Huonot Uutiset [Good and Bad News] took it as a topic of discussion. The programme picks a news story and has a panel of six people who try, in a funny and clever way, to decide whether the news is good or bad. The audience at home also gets to vote. So they were able to discuss whether me giving the money to the kids and them spending it on a bouncy castle was good or bad news, although none of these people had been to Frieze, which I think is great. The panel though it’s good news (5-1) and the audience at home thought so too (66%).
This project was a departure from your normal working method where you are the protagonist, did you enjoy working with a group, would you like to do it again?
It’s always good to do something completely new, something you don’t know how to do. By my usual standards, this project had a lot of people involved, which always makes things more complicated and which I usually like to avoid and probably will avoid in the future, unless the idea demands it again. I don’t really think of a format before I have an idea, so it’s hard to say whether I’ll continue working this way, but now I have some experience of working with kids and working with a group, maybe it will feel less complicated in the future.
Some reflections on The Committee from a Londoner
Pilvi Takala won the 2013 Emdash award for emerging artists living outside the UK, which includes a three month residency at Gasworks, London and the opportunity to make a project at Frieze London. Takala chose to hand over the £10,000 prize money to a group of children to spend together.
This work for Frieze, The Committee, leads on from Takala’s video Players (2010) in which Takala delves into the social codes of spending money. Young Nordic online poker players resident in Thailand describe how they spend their money. There is no mention of paying tax, saving for a rainy day or investing in property. To the horror, I am sure, of many, they treat money as a game, competing with each other in trying to find more outlandish or ‘baller’ ways to spend it. In fact, these young men’s attitude is comparable to that of the financiers who caused the crash but they are refreshingly honest about their intentions and there are no victims to their lifestyle. Players also demonstrates that even alternative communities need rules to function. Takala shows that most systems are equivalent. Here the players have their own code of honour and use probability and chance to decide on who will carry out menial tasks.
At first glance The Committee project appears different to Takala’s well-known works, where she causes low level disturbances in communities in order to unpick their unspoken rules. She has, however, remained true to form in creating an unusual situation and then observed how people negotiate it. Takala intended the work to explore the children’s group dynamic and how they would reach a decision on how to spend the money. In the end they wanted to make sure everyone was happy and worked towards a consensus without being directed to. The project is heartwarming and optimistic, the kids seem lovely and wise and their bouncy house project is joyful, focusing on communal enjoyment. These kids are not the consumerist monsters portrayed in the British media. We could perhaps read into the children’s behaviour a similarity to groups which resist the hegemony of capitalist society, such as the Occupy movement, which has sought to embody and demonstrate the feasibility of the ideals of participatory consensus-based democracy.
Frieze Art Fair is now in its eleventh year and has transformed the London art scene, making it more commercial and turning October into unofficial Art Month. The fair has recently expanded to include Frieze Masters, also in Regent’s Park, and Frieze New York. At Frieze London work by 1,000 artists was for sale at 152 gallery stands from thirty territories. Seventy thousand visitors visited Frieze London and Frieze Masters over the six days they were open this October. Frieze London is an elite event, day tickets for civilians are priced at £32 but most artworld citizens are invited, or blag free passes from better-connected friends.
A visit to Frieze on VIP day is a visceral reminder that, while many Londoners can no longer afford to exist there, Central London has become a playground for the recession-proof, super-rich jet set. The Frieze Projects programme is supposed to distract from the commercial focus of the fair so it is poignant that Takala has given her budget to a group of children from the borough of Tower Hamlets, where 52% of children are affected by child poverty. The London Olympics so-called regeneration of East London has profited property developers not local children.
Takala’s group of eleven children offer a representative snapshot of London’s ethnically diverse kids today. Judging by some of their project ideas, which involved celebrating the birth of Prince George and the London skyline, the kids are still at an age where they feel proud of their British ‘culture’ rather than alienated by it.
This group of children is unfortunate to be growing up under a Tory-led government during a recession. Since 2010 the government has used its policy of ‘austerity’ to begin dismantling the welfare system and effectively transfer money from the public to the private sector. Fierce cuts to public spending have impacted upon culture and education and targeted the unemployed and the disabled. Immigration laws have been tightened and freedom of speech is in decline. The chasm between rich and poor is widening and relations between old and young are worsening.
This week, Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore wrote an impassioned article on how Britain is actively hostile to young people. She describes how young people are likely to live life imprisoned by debt, scraping by, not fulfilling their potential and being called lazy. In the UK young people will find it difficult to get a university education, as fees of up to £9,000 a year were introduced last year, or buy a house, a fast disappearing ‘right’ the Brits hold dear. The government refuses to make the minimum wage into the living wage, has scrapped the Educational Maintenance Grant which helped disadvantaged children stay in school after the age of sixteen and has slashed budgets for early-years Sure Start centres and begun means-testing child benefit, which was once universal.
There is a dearth of employment opportunities for the young, who are expected to accept Zero Hours contracts or to work for free as interns. It has even been proposed to make young adults work for benefits and other proposed change to the system will mean they will be reliant on their parents until they are twenty-five. The less well-off have been priced out of London where there is now scant affordable housing. Lack of council housing and the introduction of the punitive ‘bedroom tax’ means many vulnerable families are now homeless and living in temporary ‘bed and breakfast’ accommodation, meanwhile young asylum seekers are being deported on their eighteenth birthdays.
Young people are demonised in the right wing media as ‘hoodies’ or ‘feral youth’. After the August 2011 riots, young rioters were given disproportionately severe sentences whereas the irresponsible bankers whose gambling caused the financial crisis and politicians who fiddled expenses go largely scot free. Children are often caricatured as lazy and stupid by those in authority, Education Secretary Michael Gove is trying to turn the curriculum back fifty years while a South London school has banned slang words such as ‘like’ and ‘innit’.
As Claire Bishop discusses in her fascinating book Artificial Hells (2012), under the previous Labour government, artists were considered to be akin to social workers and encouraged to carry out education projects in galleries in the name of ‘participation’ and ‘social inclusion’. Takala’s project is about something different, however, and resists any one reductive reading. The Committee holds up a mirror to contemporary British society whilst opening up pertinent questions about democratic models and consensus within society.