“Launched in 2011 by Gasworks and artist Albert Potrony, the Peer Group is composed of participants from the Even Better Together’s workshops who wish to become further involved in the discussions and developments of Gasworks’ activities. The group meets every 6 weeks and at each meeting Potrony leads the group through ‘active-thinking’ projects including performances, off site installations and walks around [the] local area to explore the various topics proposed by the group. The outcomes from a series of performances and discussions exploring these issues were then translated into a video piece that documented a fictional group with its own constitution, rules and attire, all created and directed by the participants.1”
The Peer Group, as a language, could be seen as utopian because of its inherent limitations. That is, only those who take part can really describe what goes on. However, the wider public is often included as a random variable within activities and this sense of the public is crucial in bringing meaning to the activities of the Peer Group. If we propose that within the boundaries of the Peer Group, as within the confines of a utopia, its language can be described as being a new form of literacy, then we can use this model to further analyse the way the Peer Group functions.
Additionally, since ‘games are rule-driven structures which guide human behaviour, intentionally limiting the possible states of a system and the actions available to actors within it’ (Wolf and Perron, 2008: 375), games can also be described as utopias, since the possible range of actions within the game space is predetermined by the rules of the game. What if, in addition to the possible range of actions (in a game), there can exist a further, hidden area where unexpected and remarkable things can occur? For the Peer Group, this would be like a glitch in the matrix of Cartesian space.
Participation in the Peer Group, as with all participatory acts, ‘implies a relationship to performance art [in that] they differ in striving to collapse the distinction between performer and audience, professional and amateur, production and reception. Their emphasis is on collaboration, and the collective dimension of social experience’ (Bishop, 2006: 10). It is at this point that the Peer Group shows its potential as a tool for spectacle. According to Bishop, the spectacle, as a social relationship between people mediated by images that are pacifying and divisive, unites us only through our separation from one another (Bishop, 2006: 12). The Peer Group, in contrast, negates this proposition by using participation as a means to empowerment, authorship and community. That is, the Peer Group is activated, collectively, to take responsibility for the group and its activities. It brings to an existing space a new set of rules that can be adapted to fit the circumstance and seem out of place, like an illusion or paranormal experience.
- The Peer Group is a Utopia
The eating of food is an integral part of the Peer Group process, as evidenced by the number of times it is mentioned in each session’s written report. For example in December 2013 ‘we set up a table with teas, hot water, biscuits, bread, butter, chocolate spread, peanut butter and Marmite in the front part of the gallery.’ Later in the same session it is recorded that:
‘Katie had made a roast chicken, and Azi and Amina volunteered to help her carve it. There was a feast of roast potatoes and roast parsnips, pearl barley with roasted chestnuts and pomegranate seeds, coleslaw salad, roasted cherry tomatoes, pitta bread, hummus and smoked cheese. Everyone ate until they were full, then Albert brought out tea and coffee.’
Here, the structure of the group has closely aligned itself with the daily rhythm of mealtimes. I am reminded of a passage from Bourriaud:
‘A metal gondola encloses a gas ring that is lit, keeping a large bowl of water on the boil. Camping gear is scattered around the gondola in no particular order. Stacked against the wall are cardboard boxes, most of them open, containing dehydrated Chinese soups which visitors are free to add the boiling water to and eat […] This piece, by Rirkrit Tiravanija, produced for the Aperto 93 at the Venice Biennial, remains around the edge of any definition.’ (Bourriaud, 2002: 25)
If these kinds of exhibitions ‘construct models of sociability suitable for producing human relations’ (Bourriaud, 2002: 70), does the Peer Group similarly use its model, regardless of content, to suggest ways in which the local community can come together in democratic unity?
- The Peer Group is a Game
The Video Game Theory Reader states that ‘play can be described as free movement within a more rigid structure. It is the human effect of rules set into motion’ (Wolf and Perron, 2003: 26). The Peer Group often offers some materials as a starting point to be integrated into a loose idea of where the group might venture. For example:
‘Albert had left some pieces of coloured paper, one blue, one gold and one mirrored on each person’s plate. The paper was cut into geometric shapes, and had cuts in the sides, as if they might slot together. What these shapes were exactly was not explained. As we ate, we began to play with the shapes.’
The outcome of such experimentation is always uncertain and left to the consensus of the group.
- The Peer Group is a Spectacle
The spectacle, focusing specifically on the unique nature of the events of 9/11, has become symbolic of the wider issues of international relations and religious tolerance, as well as war and terrorism. It generated a rupture in the very fabric of contemporary life and media and serves as a start and end point of historical records in the sense that we now talk of pre and post 9/11. According to Bourriaud, ‘if the spectacle deals first and foremost with forms of human relations, it can only be analysed and fought through the production of new types of relationships between people’ (Bourriaud, 2002: 85). With the peer group, the participants are not terrorists and the aim is not destruction but the parallel is that a group of people come together, in the public realm, to create something that disrupts the flow of life and sparks awareness of a world separate from our own. This is a world with different rules, systems and laws where things can be tried out and tested. Therefore, the Peer Group could and should aim to use the rhetoric of its own methods to describe a world in which its methods clash with the real world in interesting and meaningful ways.
What could the Peer Group become?
Relational art is, ‘a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space’ (Bourriaud, 2002: 113). The ‘whole of human relations’ here may refer to the totality of human knowledge and experience. But what is this totality but that which has been written down and passed through several layers of critical analysis? What of the more leftfield and not widely accepted interpretations of reality? From the very beginning (of a study) it is important to state what factors and assumptions the subsequent work will draw from. Here, it is of lesser importance whether or not the factors and assumptions are sound. A good piece of work based on false assumptions is still a good work if it has been through a rigorous process. Relational art inevitably makes assumptions about its context therefore the internal logic of the system will establish consistency within the framework of potentially fictional premises. This is why conspiracy theories often flourish: the richer the network of information (real or false) the richer and more believable the story. To generate convincing creative work, truth matters little. That being said, does the Peer Group aim to generate something creative or something more truthful? Are truth and creativity mutually exclusive? Truth and authenticity are, of course, important but lies can become established over time, since it is possible that ‘the idea of innocence faces two ways. By refusing to enter a conspiracy, one remains innocent of that conspiracy. But to remain innocent may also be to remain ignorant’ (Berger, 1972: 25).
What, then, is the theoretical and practical point of departure of the Peer Group? Bourriaud claims that, ‘artistic praxis appears these days to be a rich loam for social experiments, like a space partly protected from the uniformity of behavioural patterns’ (Bourriaud, 2002: 113). Read sequentially, I see a journey from a utopia (where rules are established) via a game (free play within these parameters) towards spectacle (the rules are bent or broken). How does the Peer Group function as a utopia and how, over time, does it seek to subvert and challenge its own internal logic? Can we confidently state that the Peer Group has the potential to become a reality as a forum for ‘new social relationships and thus new social realities?’ (Bishop, 2006: 13).
Joe Stevens graduated with an MA in Interactive Media from Goldsmiths in 2007. As a self-professed artist, athlete and academic, Stevens’ work has been included in exhibitions at The National Art Studio (Seoul, 2008), Tenderpixel (London, 2010) and HOUSE Gallery (London, 2014), opening events at APT and Goldsmiths (London, 2007), residences at IASK (South Korea, 2008) and Loopart13 (London, 2013) and publications in Rubric Journal (2009) and Mind Body Spirit (2012, 2013).
- Gasworks, (2015), Peer Group. http://www.gasworks.org.uk/participation/peer-group/ (accessed 7 February 2016).
Berger, John, (1972), Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books, London.
Bishop, Claire, (2006) ‘Viewers as Producers’ in Bishop, Claire, (2006), Documents of Contemporary Art: Participation. Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press.
Bourriaud, Nicolas, (2002), Relational Aesthetics. Les presses du reel, France.
Wolf, Mark J.P. and Perron, Bernard, (2003), The Video Game Theory Reader. Routledge, London.
Wolf, Mark J.P. and Perron, Bernard, (2008), The Video Game Theory Reader 2. Routledge, London.