PG Lecture: David Cross and the crisis of doubt

David Cross, Reader in Fine Art at UAL, talked about his life as an artist and an academic, and highlighted issues arising from his collaborative practice, his membership of the institution that is UAL and his role as a citizen of what he sees as a society under pressure.

He talked about a project, which was the last one to be featured in a book by and about his collaborative practice Cornford & CrossThe Abolition of Work 2007. They were invited to make a work for a new gallery opening in Penzance. They were thinking about the history of copper and tin mining in the area, when the Northern Rock crisis erupted leading to its bail out. They made a work by using the value of their artists’s fee and the production budget in 1p coins and laying them all out on the floor of the gallery.

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It wasn’t a representation of anything but it did evoke or allude to fish scales, puzzles, the meaning of labour, reliance on the labour of others (many volunteers had helped to finish the laying out in time), the value of time …

The title came from an anarchist pamphlet of 1985 by Bob Black, where he argues against a life devoted to production and consumption and in favour of a life where people do the work they want to do voluntarily, offering the freedom to appreciate life.

In July last year, doing research for a performance piece, Master of the Universe, Cross found a publication by the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) which he used to situate himself in relation to the various roles he plays.

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As an artist, he placed himself in the top left of the diagram around stimulation and self-direction; as an academic in the bottom left around achievement; but as a citizen on the right hand side around benevolence, universalism and belonging. For him this highlighted the different pressures and priorities people experience in different circumstances.


He talked about converting this insight into action relating to his concerns about sustainability, the future of the planet and the influence of big business and big media on all of us. The first part of this was a campaign to press UAL to divest from fossil fuels. The university has agreed to divest its £3.9m endowment and to sign up to the UN principles on sustainable investment. But he noted that £3.9m is a small part of the total UAL has invested.

160224 PG lecture David Harris 03Thinking about other ways of achieving his goals, he introduced the concepts of recuperation – the co-option of radical ideas to conservative ends – and detournement – usually applied to images but also to ideas which oppose the status quo. He referred to a report from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2015  Fulfilling our Potential and the proposals for new governance structures for universities. These would avoid FOI requirements; allow the institutions to cease to serve the public interest and allow the transfer of assets. The last point raises the question of who owns them now.

Anyway, his idea is that the University might use those proposals to become a social enterprise, which could redirect its expenditure, e.g. to supporting graduates in new endeavours, to invest in sustainability, in a move that government would probably not expect! Apparently the University of Amsterdam has already done this.

Whether or not any of us agreed with everything he said, his final statement seems to me to be relevant to us all, bombarded everyday by messages from business, the media, advertising and so on:

‘resist the zombie culture’