Field Study International: Celebrating 20 years in the Field
by Sue Hartigan
this text was originally published in “The Artist’s Book Yearbook 2014-2015” Impact Press
Early in 2013 a group of artists responded to an invitation to meet at the main entrance of the Tate Britain to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Field Study International. The celebration had been called by one of Field Study’s founders, David Dellafiora, who was visiting the UK from Australia, and was the latest Field Study reunion in which members of the network come together to perform art actions and collaborate on artworks. Meeting on the Tate steps was symbolic of Field Study’s marginal status in an elitist artworld of curated galleries and dealers. Finding the entrance closed due to building works, the group adjourned to a nearby pub to continue their meeting and perform a series of actions including book shredding, collaborative artworks and a performance (all of course to be documented in the Field Report). The Field Study reunions are one of the few opportunities for the networkers to meet face to face. They celebrate Field Study’s survival outside mainstream publishing and institutional events and celebrate its alternative fringe practice. Formed by three “unemployed” artists in London in September 1993, Field Study was conceived as an alternative to creating work for exhibition. If an extensive exhibition list on your resume is the signifier of the successful artist, for Field Study the actions that populate the gaps on the resume represented an alternative and exploratory space for creative action. David Dellafiora, Benedict Phillips and Eamonn Kirwan, recent art school graduates and already active in conceptual art practices and mail art, took their inspiration from the action-based work of the Surrealists and the Situationists, the free press movement and individual interests in alchemy and the occult. One of the models for Field Study was Cyanobacteria, the network of Finnish artist J Lehmus. Cyanobacteria described itself as an anti-organisation, not formally constituted, a network of communication artists with global aspirations, and owed its origins to what Robert Filliou in 1963 described as the “Eternal Network”, a concept of networking in which artists participate in cross-cultural and collaborative exchanges.1
The formation of Field Study was contemporaneous with post modernism and, in Britain, the rise of an elite class of artists associated with Goldsmiths and the Saatchis. Initially the focus of Field Study was to bring together artists involved in alternative (and unremunerative) art practices to work jointly on installations, actions and bookworks and facilitate collaborations and participatory events. Artists were cultural workers and networks and everyone was an artist. From the outset the production of artists books was a core activity, a form of documentation of actions, artworks in their own right. Early Field Study manifestations such as Break the Silence, Splendid Lights and All Souls were as much focused on the resulting documentation as the actual events. “Field Study aims to bring about situations of aesthetic provocation. Through the use of performance, journey works, stickers and fly posters, artists strive to go beyond the bounds of the gallery to create surprise.” (Field Study Art of the Surreal proposal to Fermoy Gallery, Kings Lynn, 1994). In its early years Field Study described itself as an ‘Unlimited Dream Company’, a reference to JG Ballard’s 1979 novel of the same name, itself an invocation of the surrealists. Field Study’s iconography, in particular its logo of a mosquito trapped in light bulb, invoked the surrealist notion of the Unconscious in state of revolt (referencing Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto) – the light bulb as idea and the insect within a bringer of sleep and dreams. The formation of Field Study coincided with the publication of Pierre Bourdieu’s seminal work, The Field of Cultural Production. Bourdieu described “the field” as:
A zone of social activity in which there are “creators” who are intent on creating a certain kind of cultural product. The product is defined, in part, by the expectations and values of the audience – not simply the creator. The audience is multiple, from specialist connoisseurs to the mass public. And the product is supported and filtered by a range of overlapping social institutions – galleries, academies, journals, reviews, newspapers, universities, patrons, sources of funding, and the market for works of “culture.” It is also important to observe that we could have begun this inventory of components at any point; the creator does not define the field any more than the critic, the audience, or the marketplace.2
In the field the market/audience is other producers and, as Bourdieu says, the criterion of legitimacy is recognition by those whom they recognise.3
By seeking its own autonomy, in a creative space conceptualised as the field, Field Study tapped into theoretical and critical writings of the early 90’s, even if unwittingly. The field as a site of struggle for cultural, social, symbolic and economic capital links to the Field Study objective of filling in the gaps of a cultural worker’s CV.
Early Field Study publications were limited edition bookworks and manifestos, photocopy and rubber stamp based, and ephemera such as sandpaper, photographs, cards and stickers, and exhibition artefacts such as loaded dice and chewing gum were included. The use of quotes from Kenneth Anger, Rene Magritte, Andre Breton and Kurt Schwitters reveal influences. For Field Study everyone an artist and “everything is art with field study” 1994. The use of collage as both form and content, self-reflexive works of appropriation and (re)presentation, what Anthony Leslie calls a “semiotic referentiality” 4 is a practice that is still dominant in the work of Field Study members. There was an intentional resistance to any professionalisation of imagery and book production, the deliberate adoption of a makeshift aesthetic, a desire for authenticity that began with early avant garde practice and continued through the free press movement. If the Field Study message was to fill in the gaps of the resume by creating an alternative practice that was DIY, low tech and intentionally marginal, then the medium was mail art, where low cost multiples and one-off artworks could be distributed outside the gallery system. One of Field Study’s (and mail art’s) most significant influences is Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondance (sic) School. A play on learning art by correspondence, for Johnson “consciousness is itself a collage, and when it’s not a collage it’s a dynamic flow of inter-relating sensations, which is the central metaphor of the New York Correspondence School”. 5 A progenitor of mail art, the act of corresponding with others became the artwork, a reciprocal practice of exchange by mail in which the author is decentred and the artwork, as it travels between artists, is in a state of becoming. Johnson’s concept of consciousness as a web to be woven of experience is a recurrent motif in Field Study’s documents. In the language of Field Study artists working in the field create emanations (artworks) collectively their work coalescing as a manifestation (the assembling artist book or document). These concepts frame and inform much of Field Study’s thinking and actions. In mail art the audience becomes active as artists, there is no jury or curator, submissions are open, everything received is shown, there are no entry fees and all who participate receive a form of documentation. But there is also an economic factor at work, for artists with limited financial resources, exchanging and distributing artworks by mail is a viable alternative to the commodity fetishism of the gallery system. By self-publishing, rather that wait for institutional recognition, Field Study pre-empts artistic recognition and creates its own history. Richard Kostelanetz in 1970 wrote that assembling is “a fundamental test of creative seriousness”. 6 Publications which are premised on the notions of collaboration and assemblage, in opposition to the “aura” of an original artwork, represent a form of participatory democracy, “the ultimate in democratic art”, devoid of editorial authority. From 1998 most of Field Study’s publications have emanated from Australia with David Dellafiora acting as coordinator/convener. Geographical remoteness from the major art centres accords with Field Study’s outsider status and has enabled its engagement with groups and individuals who would not self identify as artists. With Field Study’s convener located in a regional Australian city, the postal system has become even more important for maintaining links with globally dispersed mail artists. The language of conceptual art is still employed and the practice and iconography reflect the fact that Fluxus and Dada were precursors. A significant influence on Field Study’s publications was the publication produced by American artist Walter Berman from 1955 to 1964. Semina was produced for nine issues, an assembling publication that included work by Berman’s friends and colleagues. Semina could not be purchased but was available only to contributors, existing outside the realm of commodity, merchandising and purchasing. Field Study’s aesthetic is handmade and lo tech with the photocopier the principal tool of reproduction. With its origins in zine culture, alternative publishing and DIY, early Field Study publications were produced as photocopies assembled by hand and disseminated through the network. Early publications included The Art of the Surreal, a boxed work of documentation and emanations from a residency at the Fermoy Gallery in Kings Lynn. Other publications included the manifestos Liber000 and the Alchemical Marriage, and The Agender of the Agresive Dislecksic (TAOTAD).
Field Report, the Journal of Field Study International
The journal, the documentation of daily activities, is one of Field Study’s tactics for filling the gaps in the CV. Field Study’s annual publication is more than a conventional artists book, but rather a document of artistic activities and interventions, conceived in their broadest sense, created over a calendar year. The publication, an assemblage of the contributions of over 100 artists, spans the year and activities are logged chronologically. The 1995 Field Report, which followed the year of manifestos and limited edition bookworks, was published as an A3 photocopied loose-leaf broadsheet in a cardboard box. From its second issue onwards (1996) The Field Report adopted the more post office friendly A5 (landscape) format. Invitations to contribute are sent out through mail art networks. The 2008 issue, for example, featured a cover image of postal workers sorting mail into pigeon holes and included work by artists from Mexico, UK, Hungary, USA, Australia, Italy, Germany, South Korea, France, Russia, Canada, Netherlands, Belgium, Chile, Japan, Portugal, Ireland, Switzerland, Sweden, Argentina, Spain, Denmark, Yugoslavia, Israel, New Zealand, Uruguay, Brazil, India, Romania, Finland. Contents included documentation of installations and workshops (Blindrawing by Vittore Baroni), instructions (Video Recipe by György Galántai), community artworks (Corio Norlane Women’s Banner) and critiques (the year of greed and regression by K. Frank Jensen) as well as pages conceived as artworks (The Shopping Trolley Gallery through the Ages).
Wipe is a small assembling publication in which toilet paper is the medium. The use of a non-archival, indeed anti-archival medium, is intentional, with the ephemerality and fragility of the medium in sharp contrast with the artistic concern for archival materials. Conceived as a playful lightweight publication to circumvent postage costs, Wipe nods to Duchamp’s urinal and challenges contributors to make work on a medium that is almost anti-art. Contributors source their own toilet paper, a source of fascination in itself and a comment on the hygiene practices of different societies. In spite of its intended ephemerality, toilet paper allows rubberstamping, stitching, collaging, and even frottaging. When 20 contributions are received, Wipe is distributed to participants by mail.
Resite (Re-a prefix indicating repetition, Site-the place where some activity or event takes place) is an assembling publication conceived with an element of audience participation or interaction. Published in a limited edition of 40, Resite calls for work that takes the form of scores, instructions, manifestos or interventions to be realised by the reader. The performative element of Resite is inspired by Cornelius Cardew’s scratch orchestra and the Fluxus tradition. Resite aims to move assembling from the documentation of past activities into proactive works that require a response from viewer for completion.
Described by Field Study as a magazine of multiplicity, KART is produced by David Dellafiora as an edition of postcard sized original artworks in a handcrafted cardboard folio box. KART is open themed and open to all would be contributors. The cover image is stamped or stenciled and often reflects Field Study’s interest in numerology, the occult, visual poetry and commemoration. Published as a partnership between Field Study and the Geelong based disability service provider, Karingal, each issue of KART contains work by 15 artists and is produced in an edition of 40. With an ongoing deadline, issues are produced as soon as 15 individual works are received. Conceived as an art collection in a box, KART aims is to promote diversity in content and medium through its open theme. The partnership with Karingal ensures that work by artists with disabilities are included as often as possible. Occasionally KART functions as a monograph, featuring the work of artist such as the late Ian Scarlett, a Karingal client and an artist with a disability, who created text based work and visual poetry. KART is disseminated through Karingal’s gallery in Geelong, alternative zine stores such as Sticky in Melbourne, through archive and library subscriptions and the network of contributing artists.
Multiples and Ephemera
As well as the ongoing assembling publications, under the aegis of Field Study, networkers produced their own unique one-off or limited edition works. Such works range from Benedict Phillips’ Free Fall Kit, a printed paper plane in a plastic bag, to David Dellafiora’s Aleister Crowley AA/Boy Scouts Centennial Commemorative Edition made up of a limited edition artist’s book with a commercially embroidered Ging Gang Gooli badge, to Martha Aitchison’s mobile Shopping Trolley Gallery. They include stamp designs such as Merlin’s snail on a razor for the Unlimited Dream Company and the Retail Cargo Cult stickers. These works are diverse in terms of form, content and medium, ranging from works in limited edition such as artist stamps and trading cards, to exhibitions and installations. Premised on the ideals of open sharing and barter exchange, and the use of the postal system with its enforced conditions of weight and format, Field Study’s artists’ books are conceived and assembled as mailable items. Twenty years after its formation, the postal system is still the principal communication tool. Correspondence by letter and postcard writing is still valorised as the authentic means of communication, with mailed items, including the envelopes that contain the artworks valued as discrete artworks. The Field Study blog (daviddellafiora.blogspot.com) acknowledges that for younger artists, digital natives, online communication is as important as post. The blog also allows regular communication with members in countries where the postal system may be expensive, unreliable or subject to censorship, but the tangible artefacts distributed through the postal system is still Field Study’s modus operandi, evidence that for mail artists the art object has not dematerialised, and the processes of collaboration and exchange are an important part of its meaning and aesthetic even though, as Derrida points out, “the possibility, and therefore the fatal necessity of [a letter] going astray” 7
Art that travels through the postal system has a different exchange value to art displayed in galleries. Subject to Derrida’s fatal necessity The postal system criteria that govern its physicality (weight, format, details of sender and receiver, postmarking, stamps) also expose it to risk and intervention. The artwork creates a social environment in which people come together to participate in a shared activity. Nicolas Bourriaud claims “the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever scale chosen by the artist.”8 In relational art, the audience is envisaged as a community. Rather than the artwork being an encounter between a viewer and an object, relational art produces intersubjective encounters. Through these encounters, meaning is elaborated collectively, rather than in the space of individual consumption. Contributors to Field Study publications come from the international mail art network but also from personal invitations, community based groups and participants of art actions. As contribution is a process of exchange, artworks in the assembling publications come back to the makers along with the work of others. What is happening when artists and others contribute to an assembling publication? Bourriaud argues that rather than an artwork being an encounter between a viewer and an object, relational art produces intersubjective encounters. These encounters elaborate meaning collectively. The community of makers and readers of an assembling publication have a different relationship to the publication than does a non contributing viewer. It is the relational meanings of Field Study publications that distinguish them from individually produced artists’ books, and it is this inbuilt audience that sustains the publications rather than purchasers or archivists. Mail art and assembling publications could be considered a manifestation of what Grant Kester calls “dialogical aesthetics”, “a decentering movement outside the self (and self-interest) through dialogue extended over time”. 9 Mail art positions the artwork within an interconnected community premised on reciprocity and exchange in which the processes of correspondence, collaboration and exchange extend beyond the contributions of individual artists. In an increasingly digital world, and with the online publishing becoming increasingly accessible, assembling publications and hand made artists books may be a diminishing practice. Rising postal costs and a younger generation of artists focusing on digital publishing means that Field Study, like other mail art publishers and exhibitors, have sought sponsors and partners to offset costs. Field Study’s partnership with Karingal and support from Geelong Arts Alliance have enabled its four ongoing publications to remain viable for the time being. Many mail art projects are already exclusively advertised online through portals such as the International Union of Mail Artists (IUOMA) rather than by print media or correspondence. But in spite of increasing digitisation of artworks there is still a community of artists who seek to collaborate, exchange and trust the postal system to create artists books and other limited edition publications. Field Study’s membership is over 300, a substantial body of practitioners committed to the practice of correspondence and the essentially utopian nature of the network.
- Chuck Welch: ‘The ethereal open aesthetic’, in Eternal Network: a Mail Art Anthology, edited by Chuck Welch. University of Calgary Press, Alberta, 1995, pxix
- http://understandingsociety.blogspot. com/2011/02/bourdieus-field.html
- Pierre Bourdieu: The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Columbia University Press, 1993, p38
- Anthony Leslie: ‘The mailbox is in the library; reading under Judith Hoffbergs’s Umbrella’, Journal of Artists’ Books, 31, Spring 2012, Columbia College Chicago, p9
- Interview with Ray Johnson by Henry Martin, 1984. Artpool.hu/ray/publications/Martin.html
- Richard Kostelanatz: ‘Assembling in the Mail Art Spirit ch 27’ Eternal Network: a Mail Art Anthology. Editor Chuck Welch. University of Calgary Press, Alberta, 1995, p177
- Ibid, p13
- Nicolas Bourriaud: Relational Aesthetics, translated by Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods. Les presses du reel. Dijon, 2002
- Kester, Grant: Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004, p85