‘Changing Things with Words’

This short text was written to accompany the Freee art collective’s contribution to “Abstract Cabinet”, EASTSIDE Projects, Birmingham 2009

The Freee art collective puts slogans into circulation. Sharing and contesting opinion through acts of publishing is central to all of Freee projects. For the exhibition Abstract Cabinet at EASTSIDE Projects, Freee have developed a three pronged campaign. Two billboards, one outside above the gallery door and the other on the back wall inside, and 100 coloured balloons carried by gallery invigilators, and a manifesto, are intended to act, singularly and collectively, as mini temporary counter-public spheres.

Freee’s use of slogans is self-consciously performative – in the original sense developed by J. L. Austin in How to Do Things with Words, and in the extended sense developed by Judith Butler of acts which transform the conditions that bring them about. And this is why we use slogans rather than enigmatic literary phrases, names, descriptions or facts. Slogans are interesting because they divide opinion and do not call for interpretation but action: slogans are passed on by people who agree with them, shared in collective chanting, and ambushed by people who oppose them.

Today the key question about politics is how to stop it from becoming the professional activity of a small minority i.e. of politics being reduced to policing. Our work refuses to limit its politics to addressing the professionalized field of politics and management (activist art). Also, the work is not satisfied with the tasks appointed to art by big business and local government (culture led regeneration, new genre public art), or what’s left of politics in art after the elimination of critique (relational aesthetics). Moreover, we would argue, if the importation of politics into art is seen as abject (as being in the wrong place, so to speak), this is not quite true for the politicization of art, which sees art as always and immanently political.

Time is central to the project, as it is with all our works. Delay is built into the project. A sequence opens up in real time that changes the character of the elements of the work and the social relations that they embody. The photographs of the balloons printed up as billboards were taken in advance of the exhibition and remain visible after the last balloon has been taken away. Thus, they act as advert and document of a temporary performance in the space, which may well turn into a hundred dispersed semi-permanent exhibitions on fridge doors, in coat pockets, tied to a pram, or stored in kitchen drawers, between the pages of a book, kept in a box.

The slogans on the balloons precede the exhibition and later act as backdrops for photos that are then printed as billboard images pasted directly on the walls of the gallery. The work is not over when the artists’ photograph the curator surrounded by sloganeering balloons, neither is it completed when the photos are pasted up as billboard images. The work doesn’t finish its journey when the balloons enter the gallery space, carried by invigilators. The balloons, we should remember, are placed in the gallery to be taken out. And this is why the work shifts spatially too.

This is why Freee’s work is never, strictly speaking, site specific. Rather, the work continually folds one site into another. The work is always dispersing and contracting, back and forth between sites. Balloons, actual and depicted, move from space to space, format to format, relationship to relationship. Finally, if we could map the movements of the balloons we would see these coloured dots winding their way from the gallery through the streets to peoples homes, or let loose instead of drifting outwards into the city moving upwards into the sky.

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