The Art of the Production Line at the Barbican

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Travel has become a favourite theme of galleries recently. First we saw KK Outlet get cheeky with their Commute Nice, London show, and now the Barbican are mid-way through their show Station To Station: A 30 Day Happening. Having travelled through the US, it has now landed over here for a line-up that includes over 100 artists.The brainchild of Doug Aitken, the show is a ‘living exhibition’ that's invited over 100 artists to tap into the worlds of contemporary art, design, music, dance and film.

Performances run every day, and although they echo the Fluxus happenings of the '60s and '70s, there’s something profoundly contemporary about what they’re doing. It feels a bit like an artistic gentrification, and in some ways, they’re turning the Barbican into a giant working studio. For example, the Vinyl Factory have moved their mobile recording and pressing unit to the foyer, where they’ll press some of the live performances aiming to create over 6000 copies of 20 different albums. These hand-crafted commodities turn the performances in the gallery into a creative production line, where every element of the process can be viewed by the public. And you can buy a record for £20. It also gives viewers the chance to get behind the scenes of graphic design processes. Screen-printing, lino cutting and stippling all make an appearance as designers race to keep up with vinyl production and create the covers as a mass-product by hand.

Although there is a heavily collaborative and relational art-making take throughout the exhibition, these modes of production and the commodification of art are still overwhelmingly present. It’s been an issue that has preoccupied since the days of Nicolas Bourriaud's relational aesthetics… This is nothing new. In fact, the production value of art is such a hip thing, there’s a whole e-flux journal about it.

Hito Steyerl makes a pertinent point, that eerily describes the Barbican show quite well: “[Art] is produced as spectacle, on post-Fordist all-you-can-work conveyor belts”. So one wonders, is this why the inclusion of graphic design gives the Stations To Stations project something of a get out of jail free card? Graphic designers are the hustlers, the freelancers, the one’s who can potentially make money out of their work. The artists can hide behind graphic design techniques, charging for their limited edition prints along the way. Is there much difference between the artist and the designers? The debate rages on.

Overall though, the element of visible art making is interesting and important. Especially in light of a new report from Creative Industries Federation about the considerable impact the arts has on cities (could be subtitled: in defence of an art budget). Then there's also Lyn Gardner’s take on unpaid labour in art and her reminder “that many of those theatre-makers who are admired by emerging artists are in fact only scraping a living themselves.”. That’s not to mention the apparent exodus of creatives from London.

So, to see artists in their element is an important visual experience – without the commodification of art, how is an artist or designer supposed to support themselves? We’re beyond the starving artist motif, the Parisian garret lifestyle – nowadays we're more likely to be all about second or third jobs to pay the rent with our portfolio’s tucked under-arm in case we end up serving a pint to a Creative Director. What Station to Station reminds us is that art, labour and payment strike a tricky balance. Admission is free, so support for the artist supposedly comes through the sales made. The production line keeps whirring, but for how long can we keep our inspiration levels up?

In the meantime, we can take a look at these poster's by artists such as Bob and Roberta Smith, Gillian Wearing and Richard Long, as well as design studios like Zak Group, who've been invited to create work on the topic of 'freedom'. Interestingly, most responses heavily borrow visual cues from graphic design with a nod to typography, messaging and the illustrative. Oh, and some designs are available to buy in the Barbican shop.

Ruth Ewan

Bob & Roberta Smith

Gillian Wearing

Zak Group


Title Image Credit: Flo Kohl


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