Five Years consists of a membership of twelve contributors, each of whom may present two exhibition projects in the gallery every 18 months. Each contributor can choose to include their own work in one of these slots if they wish, but the other show must be purely invitational. Aside from these basic rules, each member acts autonomously of the others in deciding the nature and content of their contributions to Five Years’ exhibition programme. The creative freedom that this structure allows operates like an engine, generating a continuous, rapid succession of new projects and continuously branching out into unpredictable territory, beyond the control of any individual directorship.
Five Years is an artist-run organisation. Founded in 1998, Five Years’ initial aim was to set up a gallery which was artist-run and where programming would maintain a direct relationship to practice. Five Years continues to develop this aim of maintaining close links between the production and exhibition of work, and the discourse which informs it.
Founded in 1998 at 40 Underwood Street, London by Susan Morris, David Bate and Marc Hulson, Alex Schady, Edward Dorrian, Denise Hawyriso and Denise Webber were invited to join after the inaugural showWhat Is A Photograph?
From 2000 - 2002 (after which Five Years left Underwood Street) Marc Hulson, Alex Schady, Denise Hawyriso and Edward Dorrian were the remaining members. The space at Regents Studios, London was set up in 2007 by Marc Hulson, Alex Schady and Edward Dorrian. At that point the membership was expanded by invitation to also include: Michelle Deignan, Rochelle Fry, Francis Summers, Susan Morris, Cedar Lewisohn, Louisa Minkin, Alice Walton & Jo Addison, Sally Morfill and Esther Planas. Mike Murphy & Kelly O’Connor, Mary Maclean, and Ana Cavic & Renee O’Drobinak (Ladies of the Press*) joined in 2010, followed by Charlotte Knox-Williams, Ilga Leimanis, amaCollective and Mia Taylor in 2015. Esmerelda Valencia, Giuseppe Lana, John Hughes, Oktopus Collective, Phill Wilson Perkin and Rachel Cattle joined in 2017.Esi Eshun, Liz Murray, Laura Nicholson, Mutton Fist, Emma Starkey and Robin Woodward in 2019.
Esi Eshun, Liz Murray, Laura Nicholson, Mutton Fist, Emma Starkey, Robin Woodward, Phill Wilson Perkin, Giuseppe Lana, Oktopus Collective, Ilga Leimanis, amaCollective, Mia Taylor, Esther Planas, Sally Morfill, Rochelle Fry, Edward Dorrian, Alex Schady and Marc Hulson.
A Fragment on Fragments:
An extract from ‘A Choreographed Conversation'.
The occasion of this paper arises in part from a conversation. A verbal correspondence between Edward Dorrian, Marc Hulson and myself. In the darkness of The Hare’s wet concrete garden on Cambridge Heath Road. It was about, in some ways, a notion of collection, a notion of participation. As artists involved in the Five Years collection of practices – a loose collection, but a collection or a collective body nonetheless – we talked about the participation of Five Years within an event at JTP09. This now forms the basis of a response to the invitation from Autonomous Organization.
This past triadic conversation skirted loosely around what defined the collection of artists that comprises what is known as the collective enterprise Five Years. This conversation strayed into how this collection of practices might involve itself in a project that ran parallel to Frieze and Zoo, that displayed an ‘artist-run’ response to the display of expertly managed identities and free market of commodities that is an Art Fair.
The participation? The end result (not of that conversation but of the action of those in Five Years) is what we then sat in, JTP09. A marginal space, a salon of the refuse(d). In conversation with Louisa Minkin the Salon de Refusé of 2009 was put forward albeit briefly – a space reminiscent of nineteenth century art-politics, a space that exists alongside the time of the crushed communes. The salon we find here is of those refused to the inclusive-exclusive bordered space of Zoo and Frieze. So what kind of refusal might be counter-staged, what kind of marginal activity might there productively be? A dubious proposition: JTP09 as a salon of refused, a salon of refuse, a salon of refusal. If the members of Five Years were to engage in this salon (with and against this act and institution of refusal), what kind of engagement could there be?
A problem, then. How might an artist-run gallery, a collection, a collective, a communal project, participate in an event linked, however tangentially, to this notion of an Art Fair, of being outside the fair, but displaying on its margins, temporally if not spatially.
Such a problem became one of identification. How do we, participants in Five Years, define ourselves in relation to this display, to this mode of displaying. How do we identify ourselves to be seen in relation to the expert discourse of the market? To participate in the mode of the fair one must display within its protocol, to submit to being named and identified in this process, to submit (even if marginally) to its form of management.
To digress. A term used repeatedly in this conversation of three was that of the Romantic movement. A movement identified from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. A proposition emerged: Five Years is conceived as a Romantic project.A consequence of this was the putting into play of another term: the fragment.As a proposition this has been followed through in Five Years Fragments as both Vice-Versa and as Interrupted Correspondence, as exhibition and event. The mode of participation has been explicitly that of the fragment, or of the fragmentary.
Five Years’ participation of display has been by way of the fragment. To identify Five Years has been to identify a string of fragments arranged around an empty centre not a coherent synthesis bound by a proper name. In a more general way, as a collective body, Five Years, I might say, is a collection of fragments. A body of practices that sometimes converge, at other times, do not. To make an analogy, one might draw upon readings of the discourse of Romanticism. Such a discourse is littered with fragments, from incomplete projects, to ruins, to definitions.
Listen to one Romantic, Frederich Schlegel: “A fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a porcupine.”
Listen to Schlegel again: “a dialogue is a chain of fragments.”
Listen to another Romantic, Novalis: the literary seed of the fragment is that which might lead to a plural writing, a writing done in common: “The art of writing jointly is a curious symptom that makes us sense a great progress in literature. One day, perhaps, we will write, think and act collectively.” (His example?, the newspaper as a piece of collective writing; “Newspapers are already books made in common”).
Or lets turn our ears towards Maurice Blanchot who has gathered together these quotations on the fragment by Schlegel and Novalis. He remarks – this time thinking on the aphoristic mode of René Char - that with the the arrangement of a fragmentary speech we encounter a “new kind of arrangement not entailing harmony, concordance or reconciliation, but that accepts disjunction or divergence as the infinite center from out of which, through speech, relation is to be created: an arrangement that does not compose but juxtaposes, that is to say leaves each of the terms that come into relation outside one another, respecting and preserving this exteriority and this distance as the principle... Juxtaposition and interruption here assume an extraordinary form of justice.”
As a collection of fragments, then, Five Years approaches its own arrangement as a collection that foregrounds the justice of exteriority, a refusal of synthesis through selection, a justice of “arrangement at the level of disarray.”
A gallery in pieces (a collection of pieces, a collective based on the fragment), the inclusion in the space shows not one distilled collective concern, but a concern for collective equivocity. Such a term does not call towards ambivalence or ambiguity. Instead it points towards equal voices, towards the struggle that equality demands. To place voices in equal is to experience not harmonic synthesis (achieved through the sublime violence of sublation) but the constancy of struggle, of the discordance of discourse among equals. The collective whole or work of Five Years, then, is the work of the empty place around which a garland of fragments operate. As fragments (each practice a fragment) each practice is that of the ‘complete’ individual – the hedgehog or porcupine principle whereby the fragment individuates completely – but these complete parts converge as on a garland. The string upon which these fragments are strung, Five Years, encircles an ‘empty place’ as the site of incompletion, of the refusal of completion through synthesis. Here the possible activity of dissensus rather than consensus can take place, if one is brave enough.
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, in their analysis of the Romantic fragment, point to this – their understanding of the fragment is that it points to both completion and incompletion, undermining both paradigms, pointing towards a notion of the dialectical as “it covers the thinking of identity through the mediation of non-identity”. As both part and whole, as thoroughly complete (as a hedgehog) and incomplete the fragment and the empty space it provokes troubles a logic of identity, that logic which in part underwrites a gallery, principally a named participation in an Art Fair. In a move of covering identity with non-identity, one might say that the refusal of identity that is Five Years points towards the status of antagonism defining the social field, a site where the struggle for identity is never assured.
Such a notion is undoubtably Romantic if one was to return to proper names.
If one were to return to Frederich Schlegel’s notions of the fragment, one could look at his Critical Fragment no.103 to find a parallel, and find an analogy for the working principle of Five Years. Refusing the work of harmony – those “works of beautiful coherence” - Schlegel sings the praises of the piece in pieces: the “motley heap of sudden ideas” from which some kind of unity emanates, not from any synthetic principle, but from the “free and equal fellowship” that corresponds to its particular form of disarray. Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy point to the inherent ideal and organic politics that resides in this heap of fragments. Without unity but united by a politics of freedom and equality, one might make a correspondence with the ‘motley heap of sudden ideas’ that is, for better or worse, the organisational principle named Five Years.
As both an exhibition, Vice-Versa and a series of conversations, Interrupted Correspondences, a series of fragments are put in play, not a continuous writing, but a discontinuous one – not a theory of the fragment, but a practice of the fragment – a number of practices that constitute the fragmentary nature of Five Years.
So far, so meta-textual. I have talked about a shared idea of how a romantic fragmentary project might be thought of. I have talked about what Five Years might be. I talked, that night, about a notion of bureaucracy – of how a Romantic project finds itself organised. I talked that night about recent returns to notions of the Terror, of how the actions of Robespierre and Saint-Just might be seen as a form of instrumentalised Romanticism: fragmentation literally put into action, romanticism and order being put into a bureaucratic formalisation. What might a Romantic Party of the Fragment look like? How might it identify itself? (One might look here to Surrealist history, of the shared terms, manifest formation, violent expulsions and virulent retorts that occur in the artistic collective that so fore-grounded the art of fragmentation). What kind of Part might there be to come?
No Terror here, at James Taylor Gallery though, no heads are rolling. But perhaps a haunting notion of the Ideal, of idealism, of the troublesome nature of putting the Idea into Action. To have fidelity to such a notion, to an equality-event of the fragment, is perhaps what is happening in this show right now.
To have done with instrumentalisation then. A fleeting proposition from myself: Romantic Bureaucracy is put forward, is put on hold. (To think a bureaucracy in terms of Romanticism put forward by Blanchot would be to think about an instrumentalisation of a movement that necessarily composes and decomposes, that comes together to fall apart. What ways could this format enter the expert rule of the Art Fair? Perhaps that a logic still haunting this show, these fleeting events).
So. Not Romantic Bureaucracy, then. That is happening already as an exhibition-event form that persistently un-works itself, refuses coherence. To borrow again from Blanchot, we perhaps have here the work of un-working.
To end for now with a question: one might ask, paradoxically, what is lacking in the fragment? Both nothing and everything – it is both irresolutely complete and incomplete. Instead one might ask how one moves from the open field of the social to the abrupt violent gesture that fragments, that causes the fracture of the fragment.
Contribution to Interrupted Correspondence: Five Years Fragments /JTP09