While locked-down galleries compete to keep their artists in the public eye — or ear — by uploading interview podcasts, a treasure trove of earlier recordings is being overlooked. Artists’ Lives, part of the British Library’s oral history archive, is a collection of interviews with 370 artists, 200 of which are available on the British Library Sounds website. As an account of British art of the past century they are more comprehensive than Vasari’s Lives and more reliable, coming as they do from the horse’s mouth. They are also exhaustive. But for those who haven’t got all day to follow the fascinating career of Guyanese-born Frank Bowling RA through 17 hours of recordings, edited extracts are now available as Voices of art.
What makes Voices of art so refreshing is its refusal to focus only on the famous. One of its star turns, Barbara Steveni, who died in February, never had a gallery and is not represented in any public collection. Part of the 1960s happenings movement that defined art by actions rather than objects, she left no physical record of her work — and from one interview clip, we understand why.
In 1965 Steveni’s husband John Latham was exhibiting kinetic suitcases with engines, and she and the activist Phil Cohen went to a Paddington Lost Property auction to buy more. Being inexperienced bidders, they found themselves landed with hundreds of cases and nowhere to put them, until Steveni dreamed up an event to welcome Latham home from abroad. Driving the cases to Paddington Station, they bribed a porter to load them on a trolley and wheel it on to the platform where they met Latham. Armed with a saw and matches supplied by Steveni, Latham started chopping up cases and setting them alight. Pre-prepared slips of paper reading ‘DISPOSAL UNIT PADDINGTON STATION’ bought them time to make their escape, and the only photographs were taken by a Japanese tourist.
How did they get away with it? It was a more credulous time, and they were posh. Latham was a Wykehamist who had commanded a torpedo boat in the war and looked like a cross between John Cleese and Withnail; Steveni looked and sounded like Joanna Lumley, which undoubtedly helped in the role for which history will remember her, as the creator of the Artist Placement Group.
If happenings were the precursors of performance art, the artist placement was the forerunner of the artist’s residency. Steveni had the idea after getting lost one night on an industrial estate off the North Circular while searching for scrap to use in assemblages. ‘There was this huge, enormous industrial complex humming away… And I thought to myself, well, instead of just picking up buckets of plastic and material, why aren’t we actually associated with this world we don’t seem to be touching?’
When she told Frank Martin, the head of sculpture at St Martin’s, about her idea of placing artists in industrial settings he was reading in the Financial Times about the art collector and businessman Robert Adeane. ‘Why don’t you get in touch with this guy?’ he said. So she wrote to him and rang him up and he said: ‘Well, come round and have a drink, my dear.’ Ushered into his house in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, she found him straddling a tiger skin in front of the fireplace. ‘And he said: “Well, very good, my dear. I’ll be on your committee.” So, I thought, oh my God, I’d better have a committee to put this man on… So I rushed round, and got a committee of the sort of people you would have on a committee.’
Happy days. Between 1969 and 1989 the APG placed artists with British Steel, British European Airways, ICI, the National Coal Board and British Rail, among others. The benefit to art or industry is hard to gauge: David Hall spent his placement with BEA in 1970 filming cloud formations over the Rock of Gibraltar and the Swiss Alps; George Levantis, placed with shipping company Ocean Fleets in 1974, created an installation that he buried at sea. Even after the Arts Council withdrew its grant in 1972 on the grounds that ‘the APG is more concerned with social engineering than pure art’, Steveni negotiated a ‘Whitehall Memorandum’ with the government leading to placements with the Department for the Environment, the Scottish Office and the Department of Health and Social Security.
With her organisational skills, powers of persuasion and general chutzpah, Steveni might have been a captain of industry instead of a footnote in contemporary art history. Of the APG, only Barry Flanagan would later make a name as a sculptor of bronze hares. Objects tend to last while actions fade, although Latham’s sculptures, with their ‘inbuilt decrepitude’, were not so durable — but that’s another story, amusingly told by his former dealer John Kasmin in Voices of art.