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Simon McAndrew's essay about MADA! - part of an application to Curating Contemporary Art at the RCA

A brief (1,500 word) critical appraisal of a recent exhibition of contemporary art. While there is no fixed model, students’ reading of art criticism and critical theory and criticism, together with their own personal views, should be reflected in their writing. Journals such as Artforum and Texte zur Kunst provide indicative models. This is required to provide evidence of your knowledge of and critical engagement with post-war and contemporary art and so to assist with shortlisting for interview. 


DA! is an amorphous group of contemporary artists, who squat vacant commercial properties and turn them into arts venues. DA!'s attention is focused on central London[i].

I lived in Paris for two years where I discovered, Chez Robert. Chez Robert was a 6 story artsquat in central Paris, which operated as open artist’s studios [ii] inspired me to establish something like it for London. I subsequently learnt that other arts organisations such as Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin and Space Studios in London shared similar roots in radical social intervention. When I founded DA! by squatting 43 Kensington High Street it was very much a leap into the dark[iii].

MADA! the fourth and most recent DA! took place between 10th October and 1st December 2008. The name MADA!, a portmanteau of “Mayfair” and “DA!” refers to two essential ingredients which come together in any DA!: People and Place.

The people involved were the occupants, the artists and the visitors[iv]. The occupants maintained twenty-four hour occupation of the building (a prerequisite of squatting), this was the most intrinsically involved group although its membership was fluid. Most of the occupants were also artists.

The artists were a mix of visual, performance and conceptual artists, writers, musicians, thinkers, art students, students of other disciplines. As is generally the case with such a group, money was in short supply, many of the occupants of MADA! adopted freeganism (consuming discarded food) as a solution this lack of money. Lifestyle choices such as squatting and freeganism engendered a very strong sense of group membership within MADA! as it progressed.

The visitors were informed of MADA initially through word of mouth and then through the widespread media attention it attracted[v].

The place, 18 Upper Grosvenor Street was the most prestigious location occupied by DA! to date[vi]. Central London is chosen because it is geographically the most accessible part of the city.

I did not want to curate MADA!, I envisioned it being a place in which artists were able to roam entirely free. I felt any attempt to control a group of artists would be a restrictive experience. I base this on the idea that a group of artists is foremost a group of individuals, much more so than with other groups e.g. employees, students, patients. Where other groups exist to achieve a collective aim, a group of artists is a group of idiosyncratic individuals each with their own aims in mind. DA! artists should not be distracted into serving a specious and unwieldy unanimous objective[vii]. An all-encompassing objective or indeed curatorial platform upon which MADA! could be built would have grated with the freedom necessary for artists to pursue their own lines of imagination and stifled any resultant exhibition.

Robert Motherwell asserts that modern art addresses a basic human need which art has addressed for centuries: "The need is for felt experience - intense, immediate, direct, subtle, unified, warm, vivid, rhythmic." [Robert Motherwell, New York Museum of Modern Art, 1965, p 45] MADA! addressed this need for felt experience the experience for the occupants being extremely "intense, immediate and direct"[viii]. This need is not usually addressed in the majority of contemporary exhibitions. Most probably because art which produces a felt experience, rather than a product, will find it difficult to exist within an economic system focussed on commodities where art is but another product which can be bought and sold.

How the space was going to be used, was not decided beforehand. This spontaneous approach emphasised the power in leaving the process of curating open it was akin to the approach of abstract expressionists Pollock and Rothko who approached painting as the result of processes rather than setting out with a preconceived idea of what to paint. "Many (abstract expressionist) painters began to concentrate on the act of painting itself, unimpeded by anything save the decision to paint." [Abstract Expressionism, Modern Art, Thames & Hudson, 2007, p 253] MADA! concentrated on the process of exhibiting itself, unimpeded by anything save the decision to exhibit. Both emphasised the importance of the process over the product.

MADA! was best experienced and perhaps only understandable as the entire process from beginning to end. Now it is over, and all that remains are records, photos, articles, words, emails, text messages, hyperlinks and memories. These are poor substitutes for the real-life experience of what was MADA! Tino Sehgal’s immaterial works isolate the intangible quality which distinguishes paint and canvas (for example) from a work of art. He does this by focusing exclusively on the process: his performance based work results in no products at all. His work is none-the-less bought and sold, which highlights the fact that he is, as we all are, enthralled in a commodity based economic system. Everything from the initial moment of entry, to the court case to the eviction, was the exhibition[ix].

Initially there were no exhibits except the potential of the space. My involvement was as the initiator I had not intended to curate an exhibition. As explained, I felt that to do so would unavoidably stifle the result. I had been looking for a place in Mayfair for quite a while, and researched 18 Upper Grosvenor Street to ensure it wasn't about to be used. Having secured the building, the process of the exhibition began, this process inevitably was a process of curation of sorts but it took on an identity of its own, the curator was the group.

An email invitation was written, I began to write it, and realised I was taking matters into my own hands too much and so asked the other occupants to help with it. 'to make a big art project together' was as specific as the invitation eventually got[x]. On the 17th October, one week after securing the building the event was attended by well over a hundred people. A group of internationally 'known' curators in London for Frieze and so on along with the odd member of the press, were impressed by the experience.

Around the same time, after the email had been sent, Stephanie Smith, another occupant decided that a Trojan Horse was to be created as a collective sculpture occupying pride of place on the ground floor with its head on the first floor and its neck half-way between. In many ways the Trojan Horse came to represent the challenges and triumphs of MADA. No one was in charge of how it should look, each person who came to work on it simply expanded on the work of their predecessor. It had three legs to begin with, and to end with, this was dictated more by the materials of which it was composed rather than any preconceived notion of what a three-legged horse might symbolise. Its head was newspaper-mâché, its neck an array of splints salvaged from Mayfair's myriad skips. It made slow progress toward a state of completion. An artist who creates a work of art, without wanting to be credited for it, is a rare thing. Knowing that contributions to the Trojan Horse were anonymous was perhaps why, after six weeks, it was still incomplete. More optimistically; perhaps it was complete at every stage of its development.

The criteria for a prospective artist who wanted to exhibit at, or rather, be part of MADA! was not an aesthetic one, it was more a participatory one[xi]. Ideally, potential artists needed to assist with 24 hour occupation of the building. This had the effect of putting off some potential artists and greatly enhancing the collaborative experience for those able to commit this amount of their time. Those who could commit this amount of time also needed to vouch for what they did with their time as artistic at least to themselves and preferably to other occupants. [xii]Most of the time, most of the walls were bare. I am inclined to think that while this bare state lasted, it was a stroke of John Cage like genius but I am wary of the possibility that it was a stark naked emperor. Either way, towards the end of the sixth week a critical-mass of artists had accumulated and the building was filled with installations, performances and objects of art.

MADA!, like Pop, appropriated materials from modern society, the occupying artists, the agents of the process, were fuelled on fresh vegetables discarded in New Covent Garden market. MADA! not only appropriated food, a contemporary replacement of the printed image, but also 3 working pianos, construction materials, and of course, the building itself. MADA! was very much rooted in the urban London environment, where Pop poked fun at the products of contemporary culture and mass consumption, MADA! took advantage of the spoils of mass production and mass consumption. MADA!’s ‘materials’ were found by drifting through the psychogeography of the city in a similar way to how the Situationists would dérive.

The MADA! exhibits were not on sale, indeed it is difficult to imagine how the process could have been sold. This non-commercial position was not a direct rebuttal of the financial aspect of the contemporary art world; it was to do with the idea that success need not be measured in pounds and pence. Success was measured by a different scale at MADA! what the increments of this scale were, I’m not sure. The evening of 21st November for example was a success I know that instinctively, anyone who was there would agree. To measure success in £s is asking for trouble[xiii], yet a phrase such as “Damien Hirst is the most successful artist of our times” trips easily off the tongue[xiv]. 18 Upper Grosvenor Street should have been sitting vacant that evening, instead there were around six hundred people exploring it and experiencing some kind of artistic, bohemian microcosm. Whoever those people met, whatever they went on to do as a result of that evening, however it influenced their futures, MADA! was then an unequivocal success, and not because of how much money was involved. [xv]

Although the occupants were perhaps the least prolific group to make use the building in terms of creating physical works of art, the contribution of their time towards maintaining occupation was one of MADA!s most valuable assets, without which it would have not existed. Parallels drawn between MADA! and other art movements can only exist in the art-historical mind, this is not to say that MADA! resisted pandering to any specific genre. Its simpler than that, its just the case that the best way, perhaps the only way so far, to understand MADA! was to have been a part of it. To make use of MADA!, one had to actually be a part of it. And that was the point, not to write essays about it, not to theorise about it, but simply to make use of the opportunities one could find within it. MADA! was a trigger, not an interpretation.

The art aspect of it all was not about the objects, it was the art of relationships between people, it was the art of being together, it was living art, it was the art of a network, it was transformation art, it was use art, it was the art of creating opportunity, it was not money art, it was belonging art, it was fun art, it was rebellion art, it was unorthodox art, it wasn't anti-art-world art it was irreverent-art-world art, it was unintentionally political art, it was direct art, it was green-tape art, it was culinary art; it wasn't washing up art, it was not art, it was smart.


[i] other similar groups such as the 491 Gallery, the Rampart and Lyndhurst Way can also be found, but in less accessible parts of the city.

[ii] Chez Robert, also had a gallery space which hosted weekly exhibitions for artists who did not have a studio there, a theatre, a print room and a dark room, various other facilities were also publicly available. 59 Rivoli became extremely popular and eventually the Mayor bought the building to keep it going.

[iii] I had not been to university in London and was not particularly involved with London's art world, however I had been a friend of the V&A and spent much of my spare time there.

[iv] Grouping people this way is prescriptive but for the purpose of this essay, helpful. Most people were aged between 18 and 25.

[v] The media attention was strongly disapproved of by the majority of the ideologically far-left occupants.

[vi] MADA!! was sandwiched between Hyde Park and the American embassy. Previous DA!s had been established in Knightsbridge, Tottenham Court Road and on Kensington High Street. Someone recently said to me "For anti-capitalists you choose rather salubrious locations". Squatting is not anti-capitalist in my mind. Squatting is dependent on the spoils of capitalism's. Inevitably squatting in central London adds an element of ‘in-your-face-corporate-world’, but if one is going to squat, why squat in Peckham when the 'rent' is the same in Mayfair?

[vii] Most artists are only likely to take part in any endeavor, MADA included for primarily self-interested reasons.

[viii] The intensity originating from the closeness of human relationships, the immediacy and directness from squatting.

[ix] Writing this essay and attempting to convey MADA! in black and white is therefore quite a challenge, but one I am strangely enjoying.

[x] . It was sent to a small email list mainly composed of artists who had previously expressed an interest in getting involved

[xi] When situations arose where an artist brought a ready-made work or installation hoping to drop it in place, it was explained that a greater level of involvement was required.

[xii] Convincing one another that one’s time was being spent artistically, i.e. being an artist, was a subtle pursuit dependant on complex interpersonal skill.

[xiii] I’m not opposed to the idea that things are measured, I even see money as a capable measure of value, however it strikes me that concepts as intrinsically qualitative as success and art are not well suited to quantitative measurement.

[xiv] That he is the richest artist of our times implies that he is also the most successful. It appears therefore that success is commonly measured in terms of money.

[xv] While on the subject of money, its worth pointing out that squatting is a counter-cyclical activity, i.e. it moves in opposition to the overall economic cycle. In light of the current recession, DA!’s future squatting looks strong.