Changing States

Eddie Chambers reviews the first decade of inIVA’s activities

There might possibly be some artworld people out there – beyond London in particular – who have not yet grasped what exactly inIVA (the institute of International Visual Arts) is or does. Part publishing house, part exhibition generator, part residency facilitator, part library, the part suffixes are, it seems, endless. And yet, despite, or perhaps, because of a decade of multi-levelled activity, inIVA continues to struggle for a certain type of visibility and identity, consistent with the breadth and depth of its activities. This new publication Changing States: Contemporary Art and Ideas in an Era of Globalisation appears, in part at least, as a plea or pitch for a wider and perhaps more sympathetic consideration. The book’s blurb describes it as follows: ‘Featuring the work of over 100 artists and writers, this unique anthology maps the changing landscape of contemporary art and culture over the past decade in the context of global economics and local politics.’ However, within the book itself, this broad range of activity is ‘seen through the prism of a decade of artistic programming by inIVA’.

The essays, catalogue and publication extracts, artwork reproductions, documentation and other archival material is all divided into ten sections: Metropolis, Site, Nation, Performance, Global, Identity, Translation, Making, Archive and finally, Modern. It doesn’t take much examination however, to realise that the ten categories are spurious and wholly artificial delineations. Pretty much anything in Changing States could appear in any of its sections. This might say something about the ongoing mixed-upness of modern and recent cultural and artistic times, more than it does about the book’s editorial decisions. Certainly though, the assorted categories are of no use to us in making sense of the book’s contents.

While the book’s final pages consist of a useful glossary of terms, Changing States, curiously, has no index. In navigating the book, the reader can do little more than scan the entirety of the contents page in the hope of finding something in particular. This method is not without difficulty. Nothing appears in any sort of chronological or alphabetical order. The chapter headings and sub-sections appear in an ultimately random (though quite pretty, multi-coloured) formation. The only other option of finding something in particular is to flick rapidly, or patiently, though the book. The absence of an index is perhaps the most frustrating and bizarre aspect of the anthology.

Changing States is in some ways a revealing publication, because it makes a declaration of, and gives form to inIVA’s formidable and perhaps troubling reach. Consider for example the country’s three most successful black artists: Chris Ofili, Steve McQueen and Yinka Shonibare. They have each, perhaps wisely, meticulously placed themselves and their practice outside of, or beyond conventional debates about the history and practice of black artists in Britain. And yet – even though they do not, by any stretch of the imagination, need inIVA – each of these three artists ultimately has fallen into inIVA’s seemingly voracious and ultimately problematic embrace and, as such, are duly represented in Changing States.

And for Britain’s not-so-blessed black artists, whether they like it or not, inIVA has, perhaps unfortunately, become the only game in town. Though it is careful not to declare itself explicitly as the faithful friend of the hapless and friendless black artist, by and large, and with little exception, inIVA has become the sole means by which black artists’ work can be profiled, with adequate resources, within London. With the turning of each page of Changing States, inIVA’s dominance is graphically underlined and reconfirmed. Within this publication, a truly comprehensive assortment of material is uniformly baptised with the inIVA aesthetic and sensibility.

Changing States reprises a decade of inIVA activities. But that decade also signifies a comprehensive and concurrent shutting down of wider opportunities for the country’s black artists. There now exists an unspoken, though nevertheless explicit assumption that inIVA exists to attend to those coloured artists that the art world deems surplus to requirement. In that sense, an uncomfortable and somewhat unavoidable conclusion is that inIVA props up, rather than challenges, art world racism and its ingrained indifference to many of the country’s black artists. In 2005, if black artists want to do something substantial, they are now obliged to plead for inIVA consideration. There simply are no other viable and substantial routes available. Of course, in pre-inIVA times, London’s galleries were not exactly queuing up to work with black artists. Nevertheless, a relative haemorrhaging, or absence, of wider opportunities for London’s black artists, coupled with a formidable inIVA hegemony, is perhaps the most dispiriting difference between the time of inIVA’s birth in 1994 and the capital’s curatorial landscape ten years on.

No fewer than four out of the six black artists to receive recent decibel awards of £30,000 each are represented in Changing States. When artists choosing to take the dubious ‘cultural diversity’ route to further their careers end up within the inIVA stable, it is clear that something isn’t quite right. And when those artists who bend over backwards to disassociate themselves from the wider groupings of Britain’s black artists still somehow end up under the inIVA umbrella, it is clear that inIVA’s reach and embrace is perhaps a little too broad and indiscriminate for comfort. InIVA was, after all, brought into existence, in part at least, to draw attention to more than a favoured few black artists, and to challenge and contradict the retarded ethnic/multicultural/cultural diversity-arts hegemony that has dominated the ways in which black British artists’ work has been framed from the 70s to the present time.

I mentioned earlier that inIVA is part publishing house, part exhibition generator, part residency facilitator and part library. Changing States throws into sharp relief a perhaps unforeseen difficulty of this. Because inIVA has only ever had one director, her hand, or her influence, is clearly discernible in everything inIVA does. The book might showcase ten years of wide-ranging activities, but the director’s touch is never hard to locate. As such, the book effectively functions (and sometimes comes across) as a personal resumé of a particularly well resourced freelancer, perhaps more than it functions or exists as a record of a national arts organisation with a full complement of staff.

But setting these concerns aside, like a good box of chocolates, Changing States has something for everyone. With contributions by (among many many others) Lyle Ashton Harris, Clifford Charles, Uzo Egonu, Mona Hatoum, Gavin Jantjes, Jacob Lawrence, Moira Roth, Aubrey Williams and Chen Zhen, this particular box of chocolates has plenty to go around. Furthermore, there is still precious little in print and in good circulation relating to the history of black artists in Britain and in a global context. A good amount of the book deals with British-based black artists’ practice. As such Changing States should perhaps be welcomed as a significant contribution to a decidedly patchy body of published material.

Changing States: Contemporary Art and Ideas in an Era of Globalisation, ed Gilane Tawadros, inIVA, London, 2004, 1 899846 40 9.

Eddie Chambers is Research Fellow in Curating at London Metropolitan University and a Visiting Professor at Emory University, Atlanta.

First published in Art Monthly 287: June 2005.

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