Black Dogs, an art collective formed in Leeds in 2003, with its first exhibition taking place in 2004, now has members based around the country including Milton Keynes, London and Huddersfield, and has had a varied output over the last decade, including formal exhibitions, relational and participatory installations, public events and interventions, publications, video, audio works and records and collaborative learning projects. Rebecca Senior spoke to four members of Black Dogs in the run up to What’s Your Favourite Idea?, their 10th anniversary party at The New Bradford Playhouse about some of their previous projects and approach to art making.
Rebecca Senior: Since the collective was formed in 2003, Black Dogs have been committed to projects which provide a platform for artists to engage with one another outside the art world’s ‘institutional framework’. Could you talk a bit about this choice and what you think draws people and artists to working in this way?
Andy Abbott: There’re various reasons people want to get involved or stay involved in Black Dogs, but not all of them are to do with our ‘non-instutional’ position. I think there’re people that have been involved in Black Dogs because we do, at times, engage with the Art World proper! Anyway, I guess for me doing things outside of the institutional frame is more fun, more genuine/authentic, more free and more rewarding. We try not to treat art as a job, and we make decisions based on the process and the project we’re involved in, rather than thinking about where it would get us in terms of a career. I think the people that have stayed active members of the collective feel some affinity with that approach, whether it’s because of their politics or whether it gives them some respite from other parts of their lives, or just that it suits them!
Amelia Crouch: I don’t overtly think about Black Dogs projects as being outside the ‘institutional framework.’ We’re responding to where we find ourselves. Leeds/Bradford, where the group formed, doesn’t have that much of an institutional art world anyway! Of course we travel to other places; the group has dispersed and we have also done things in ‘art world’ settings, but for me it’s really important to be able to make and do things where you live.
A lot of Black Dogs members have art degrees, have taught in institutions, worked in galleries etc. So, in that sense we’re very wrapped in the institutionalised art world. But I do consider being part of Black Dogs, and working collaboratively, as an attempt to find an alternative to an individualistic, career driven way of working.
RS: Despite Black Dogs’ projects spanning publishing, exhibitions, installations, learning and residences, deconstructing object identity seems to be a recurring theme – I’m thinking of Contraband (2013) and Poles (2012). Could you talk a bit about these projects in relation to ‘value’ and ‘price’ of the art work.
AA: Yeah, those projects were based on the same model, or we were exploring a similar format with them anyway. Contraband began with an invitation to exhibit as part of “Ante,” an event at Shipley Kirkgate Centre. We had this idea of displaying loads of stuff gathered from charity shops in the area because there’s quite a few. Then we found out the building used to be a school, so built this narrative about the objects being confiscated property taken from naughty kids. It was fun to give these odd, disconnected objects a connection through invented stories and get people to look at them in a different way and perhaps appreciate them more. Some of the stories were even true! We don’t tend to sell work, apart from publications and the like which we sell at cost price.
David Thomas: to my mind the first iteration of Contraband, at the school, had the essence of piece of prop comedy, changing the context of something momentarily to create a narrative and then returning the object to the real world. The location simply provided the subtext to the punchline. The second version, in the windows of an office and then as a publication, became almost more meta as the viewer didn’t really even need to know if the objects were real.
This doesn’t really address the question, but leads on to Poles, in which the objects almost retreated from view entirely being subsumed by this overly complex winter wonderland, which we created in a very large space. It is personally the Black Dogs project I’ve been involved with that I am most proud of, as we spent so much time constructing the whole world for these tiny objects and their even smaller narratives and the whole thing only existed for barely two days and was seen be almost no one.
Poles was like taking a tiny piece of a child’s artwork and putting it in wall size ornate golden frame. But I think often when something like that is done as ‘art’ it is an exaggeration of the banal and in the end the viewer is left unsure as to whether the object is being mocked, or maybe ‘art’ itself is being derided. This can arise from the artist’s flippant approach to the extravagant value that their work has as art. Poles was entirely without sarcasm, malice or irony. The objects had their own value before, during and after, but our work itself was valueless because it was so fleeting. Maybe we were the ones being mocked for putting so much effort in to make it look so wondrous.
AC: It’s perhaps also worth mentioning Next to Nothing (2011) (which was the first Black Dogs project I got involved in). The subtitle was: “An Exhibition on The Price of Nothing and the Value of Everything.” It was quite an object-based exhibition, held in an empty shop unit in Leeds and then again in an artist-run gallery in Glasgow. The whole premise of the exhibition was exploring ideas of ‘value’ – which contributors did in various direct or oblique ways – and I can’t decide if it is wholly appropriate or wholly inappropriate that it involved the most things that look like (and could be) saleable art items as any recent Black Dogs project.
I’m not really interested in the monetary or economic value of art. I am interested in art as a site for meaning-making and in the experience of making and encountering art works. I think that’s the case for most artists?!
RS: Can you tell me a bit about the Black Dogs’ Quarterly publications which started in 2013. I’m particularly intrigued by the geographic nature of the titles – Grim Up North/Shit Down South and Dead End Town, and how geography has perhaps shaped the collective in general.
AA: As time’s gone by, members of the collective have moved away from Leeds to other cities and attracted new members there. So we’ve ended up with ‘cells’ in Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield, London and Milton Keynes. It’s difficult to do collectively devised projects over that distance so the quarterlies were an attempt to explore a format that allowed for submissions from everyone, with each being edited/curated by a different cell. I guess those publications you’ve mentioned in particular allowed us to engage in a dialogue with each other (and our audiences) about the differences and similarities between the places we’ve ended up.
Eva Rowson: I think there’s definitely something in the ethos of Black Dogs that keeps us wanting to be involved, even though we’ve moved away from Leeds now. As Andy says, it is sometimes hard to keep being involved in the same way with the group as we’re not in the same city, but there is something special about the connection between those that have been involved or worked or just have simply known and had a good time with Black Dogs at the some point. And, since moving away from Leeds, these connections have helped forge new relationships with others here in London and beyond who share or have shared in that same ethos.
RS: I’m interested in Black Dogs’ relationship with the institutional art world and whether you think one could be beneficial for the other. The online documentation about your anxieties over presenting No Soul For Sale at Tate Modern in 2010 is really extensive and exhibits a very nuanced understanding of the problems which could have arisen. Could you talk a bit about the outcome of the project and its subsequent impact on the collective?
AA: No Soul For Sale was a weird one. We felt the contradictory nature of having a celebration of ‘independent’ art in one of the world’s largest art institutions needed to be addressed in our project. Building a pub in which to have a conversation about the thorny relationship between making a living, working with ‘the man’ and keeping your integrity was the result. We actually had a great time at that event which is more than can be said for the majority of the artists that took place, and the audience. So, it was good for us! I guess it helped us focus on the reasons why we do things in an ‘alternative’ way. That being, because it’s more fun – and people pick up on that and hopefully have a more meaningful relationship with your work because of it.
ER: I think it also showed the process of how Black Dogs worked at the time – our meetings happened in the pub! It’s always been important for us to show something of the way we work together, rather than just presenting a finished product. The pub created a fun, relaxed setting in which we could have some good conversations between ourselves and with visitors about the issues we were wrangling with over No Soul For Sale at the bar or pool table.
We then took the pub to Milton Keynes Gallery later that year and recreated it again in a gallery setting, which again worked really well to create a different space within the white walls, and this time we brought in some local bands we knew for a gig in there. I think it helped us to think about how to create and use these different spaces to create opportunities for conversations – and we used a similar format again with Poles, making a warm Christmassy grotto that was inviting for people to settle into at the end of the trail through the cold industrial unit.
Rebecca Senior is a writer based in Leeds, and a Phd candidate in History of Art at The University of York.
Image: Poles (2012)