Under the mantle of A Constructed World (ACW), Geoff Lowe and Jacqueline Riva have worked with amateur painters, bankers, homeless youth, immigrant communities, school children, friends and families, as well as other artists, to bring ideas outside the art world inside, brokering exchanges across this institutional threshold to enliven or challenge the definition and practice of art. “Stay in groups” they advise, “no need to be great”.
Whether it’s a role-play with New York’s worst students, an open-call video screening in Milan, a performance with artists in Melbourne, or a workshop with fee-paying participants in London, ACW work with others to manifest group interests and concerns. With a disdain for technique, they purposefully ‘err’ on the side of participation and access, and the work makes a virtue of its obtuse, provisional, and makeshift appearance. Not surprisingly, their work makes most sense when it’s replayed through the particular sentiments from which it arises. And as they say, it’s not really finished until “the audience participates in some way”.
ACW are nomadic, travelling between residencies across the globe, from traditional capitals like Paris to the new industrial zones of China, from fledgling post-colonial outposts like Melbourne to global centres like New York. Their method – like Socrates’ – is peripatetic. Often it’s video – “fast, about presence, fun, user-friendly, largely authorless, cheap but rich” – that has provided a perfect medium for ‘bringing things together’ along the seams of this constructed world, recording the trickle-down of global forces in the incidental views and gestures of people around them.
Their clips are edited against typical documentary or narrative structures, according to a freewheeling group dynamic that aims to render a complex collective response. Sometimes they might borrow a song for the purpose, their friends and family covering Lou Reed’s Street Hassle in the middle of the bush, or seven colleagues ‘murdering’ the White Stripes’ smash hit on the one freakish seven-necked monster guitar. At other times the videos seem more like a vague, unformed residue of a wide-ranging discussion among people, friends, and acquaintances from Australia and around the world.
When viewed together, however, it’s possible to see through the ubiquity of video in our lives to shared concerns and issues. These become the structure or rhythm for the final cuts: collected responses to grander notions of salvation, history, or revolution. Thus massive shifts in political economy appear as elliptical traces in ACW’s videos. Video stills are sometimes used as sources to make other works, suggesting a further distillation of ideas in more obdurate means, rendering a fleeting expression in oil or ceramic.
ACW have a keen eye for the unusual patterned significance of what people say and do: two naked people smoking a cigarette can say a lot about social relations, a guitar bolted to the ground so that people can sit and play reveals a common disposition to music, a swivelling video camera mounted in the centre of a roundtable records the shifting group-dynamic of people from diverse backgrounds in a halting discussion, and the choice of half-a-dozen different types of seats for visitors on opening night subtly reveals audience preferences.
Occasionally the work seems more like agit-prop. A sing-along with the art collective DAMP supported diversity in the midst of Pauline Hanson’s election to the Australian parliament. A candle-lit vigil called for ‘unconditional regard’ for all people. ‘Ceremonial’ burnings of a US banknote and an Australian flag and a petition to change the flag to fellow artist Jon Campbell’s ‘Yeah’ design decried increasing negative nationalism. Yet these calls to public action reflect an alternative politics based on hospitality and conviviality.
To this end, ACW provided beds, pillows, and cushions for people to sit, lie, even sleep, while viewing their works. They hosted dinners and sleepovers in their exhibitions. As editors of their own magazine, Artfan, they provided as much space for the responses of artists and non-professional viewers as they did for critics. They presented ‘audience talks’ in association with their exhibitions. They ran their own gallery—with French curator Charlotte Laubard—welcoming audiences into the front rooms of their part-time home in Turin; they also publicly exhibited in the private homes of well-known collectors. Visitors to one exhibition were legally contracted to keep the work secret until the end of the show; at another exhibition, visitors could buy a dream.
As their name suggests, these different vantage points convened in numerous ways and by diverse means might ultimately combine in a kind of potted worldview. And thus the world is paradoxically constructed or constituted as much in the disunity of its communities as by their agreement. And the signs, symbols, and ideas that comprise the works of ACW are ultimately rendered between members of the groups and audiences they work with, as a social affect within their relationships and networks, reflecting profound changes occurring in the world.