Arc, The Vaults

Curatorial development organisation Arc run by Laura Coult and Shamrez Marawat was established to facilitate and support the work of curators based in the West Midlands region through the presentation of monthly exhibitions and events. With Arc’s remit focussed on the curatorial, the curator typically shares the bill with the artists in the exhibition. Art Detection Services, curators of the May 2010 event instead headlined the exhibition, using their authority as curators of the event to pass judgment on the works in the exhibition. This placed the artists secondary to the curators and their actions on the night.

Art Detection Services Ltd Birmingham, to use their full name, describe themselves as, “the world leaders in identification of art objects in any situation. Using our world-famous and 100% accurate Art-Detecting machines we can give you a definitive ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on whether an object in question is Art.”

However, this exhibition was less concerned with whether an object ‘is’ art as opposed to whether the object is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. For the presentation at Arc, each art object had been donated to the exhibition by artists and friends of Art Detection Services’ front-man Matt Moore. On this occasion he was assisted by four other team members dressed in official uniform, using home-made art detectors strapped to their backs to determine the quality of the artwork in the space. If found to be ‘bad,’ the work was ‘corrected’ live in front of the exhibition audience using ADS’ tools of choice: hammers, saws and other weapons of destruction. This both parodied and subverted the role of a curator in either supporting or being critical of the work of an artist. However, this was taken to extremes through the destruction of artwork found not to be of appropriate standard. Thus the project touches on some complex ideas surrounding authority, subjectivity, value and worth whilst maintaining a sense of playfulness and humour which is engaging.

There were several fantastic moments during the course of this deceptively simple project which made it especially enjoyable. These include the point at which the wholly male Art Detection Services team struggled to get to grips with a sculpture composed of several pairs of particularly indestructible ladies tights. Some female members of the team would have been useful, as I don’t doubt that a woman would have been able to destroy said art work in absolutely no time at all. I was almost recruited as a member of the ADS team but my primary duties were to include making tea and mopping the floor, and I was told it would take many years of training before being let loose with an art detector. I therefore declined the position.

The venue for each Arc event thus far has been The Vaults, a wine bar and restaurant in the Jewellery Quarter area of Birmingham, an underground space with a vaulted ceiling. Art Detection Services utilised four of the venue’s small rooms leading from its central corridor. These were each given over to a different purpose: The Office, where the team planned their schedule and took breaks; The Gallery, where the small collection of works by different artists was displayed; The Decontamination Zone, where the works were detected and ‘rectified’ if necessary and The Training Room, where visitors could brush up on their own skills in an attempt to avoid producing ‘bad’ art. One obvious point of contextual reference is Michael Landy’s ‘Art Bin’ at the South London Gallery, though in ADS’ case, the gallery was not only a receptacle for ‘bad’ art but a sort of centre for treatment, where bad art could be cured.

The live aspects of the Art Detection Services are its real strength. The team were able to engage an audience throughout the duration of the project through their banter, humour and provocative comments. Having seen Art Detection Services’ previous project ‘The Good Art Gallery’ at the Created in Birmingham Shop in the Bullring, I had been a little disappointed. But then, I had not seen the selection process, the performative aspects which are so key the group. Their work at Arc was certainly as much about the process of selection as the final outcome. I think one of the most problematic but interesting things about Art Detection Services’ project is the role that the group occupied within this context, encompassing aspects of both performer and curator. Usually, curators are invited by Arc to present the work of other people in the space. Whilst Art Detection Services did do this, they assumed a far more prominent role, becoming performers or participants in the construction and subsequent destruction or reconfiguration of their exhibition. Curating: live.