WFPD: Hello Alice, thank you for coming today. 

Alice Rawsthorn: My pleasure. 

WFPD: What’s the exhibition you will be talking about today?

AR: The exhibition I’ve chosen is a show by the German artist Maria Eichhorn at Chisenhale Gallery in East London in Spring 2016. It was called 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours.

Maria Eichhorn is a conceptual artist who often works with cultural institutions by challenging them to scrutinize their behavior, usually with a simple gesture. The gesture for this exhibition was her insistence that all the staff at the gallery should withdraw their labor for the duration of the show. The title of 5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours is how long the exhibition lasted.

WFPD: Could you describe what you would have seen if you tried to visit the gallery during that period?

AR:  It was impossible to visit the gallery during the period because all the staff withdrew their labor for the full 5 weeks and so the building was closed to the public. The only visible elements of the exhibition were a small sign attached to the gallery door, explaining in simple terms what had happened, and another sign on the home page of the gallery’s website, again explaining the reasons for the closure. 

WFPD: Do you think it worked just as well for the visitor to see the website instead of physically going to the gallery?

AR: One of the fascinating things about the exhibition was that different people interpreted it entirely differently. For me, the visual elements of the exhibition, which in this case would have been the signs on the door and the homepage, were of negligible interest. They were just points of information, but a lot of people actually did go to the gallery to look at the sign

and perhaps inevitably, because of social media, it became 

a visual meme for the exhibition. I still have a powerful image of it purely from social media feeds, because I never actually physically saw it. But for me, the fascinating aspect of the exhibition was how it affected the gallery. I am chair of the board of trustees of Chisenhale Gallery, so my life was directly affected by this exhibition and that’s why I chose it. 

Maria Eichhorn’s intention was to scrutinize the working conditions at the gallery and to experiment with what the employees would do if they were suddenly given lots of free time. There was a symposium at the start of the exhibition to discuss the issues raised, and an interview with Maria Eichhorn was published. The symposium and interview were intended to generate a wider debate about the issues, but the content of the exhibition was how the employees chose to use their time. It was interesting to see how differently individual members of staff responded to the idea. One jumped with joy of being given five weeks holiday which seems completely logical, but another was upset by the prospect of not being able to work. People outside the gallery, again, had very different perceptions of the exhibition and what it meant.

WFPD: The idea of individuals reacting so differently to the same situation is an interesting one, so I was wondering how these different reactions from staff were communicated to the outside. 

AR: Well, Maria Eichhorn defined certain rules of engagement for the exhibition and one of them was that the staff would not be expected to discuss publicly what they did with their free time. They weren’t allowed to engage with the gallery in any way, so, for example any emails sent to them during that period were automatically destroyed. They weren’t waiting for them in a huge digital mound when they returned at the end of the five week period. But of course it had significant implications for their workloads both before and after the exhibition, and for the trustees, who were excluded from the five weeks off, because there were certain risks for the gallery in being closed for so long. An obvious risk was that the next exhibitions could be jeopardized because the staff wouldn’t be there to prepare for it. Chisenhale has a fantastic reputation for showing emerging and experimental art. The reason why the exhibitions are of such high quality is because Polly Staple, the director, and her team work so closely and intimately with artists to produce newly commissioned work to incredibly high standards. Normally, in the five weeks before the installation of a new exhibition, they will be working very very closely with the artist, finessing everything. So we were very concerned that other artists would suffer as a result of the exhibition.

The other potential problem was financial. Like most publicly funded arts institutions, we get roughly a quarter of our funding from the Arts Council and have to raise the rest ourselves. Clearly, if staff isn’t able to work on fundraising for five weeks, there’s a possible problem, even if trustees are still helping. The third risk, which Maria Eichhorn couldn’t have known about, being German and unfamiliar with the UK arts funding system, was timing. The exhibition took place at a time when the government was deciding on the level of public funding for the arts for the next four year period from 2018 to 2022, and there were widespread fears of cuts. The Arts Council and senior figures in the arts had mounted a long-term lobby to safeguard the sector. The last thing anyone would have wanted was sensationalistic media coverage about an artist closing a gallery deliberately when other art organizations were being threatened with closure. Thankfully, the political situation turned out to be not quite as precarious as we had feared, and the Arts Council secured standstill funding. But we were, quite rightly, very worried about it at the time, so one of the first things Polly did was inform the Arts Council about Maria’s plan for the exhibition. They were very helpful. The Chisenhale staff worked very closely with the Arts Council and their communications team to make sure that everybody understood the purpose of the exhibition and exactly what was involved and that the correct messages were communicated so that, if there was a problem, everybody would be fully informed and ready to spring into action.

WFPD: So there was a lot of background that made this exhibition challenging but also interesting for you. What were plans B, C and so on if anything didn’t go as planned?

AR: What we felt we had to do was to try to anticipate every possibility, and to make contingency plans. This involved briefing partners and funders in advance, so they could think about the potential implications for themselves, and we could develop plans B, C, D and so on together, if necessary.

WFPD: So while all this was happening behind the scene so to speak, there were other aspects of the exhibition that were more public, such as the symposium and the interviews with the employees. 

AR: Actually the interviews with the employees took place before the symposium, and were conducted privately, but were published subsequently. Maria made a visit to the gallery, and spoke to the employees about the way they worked. The symposium was about the exhibition, and generic issues relating to labor.

WFPD: What’s interesting to me is how all these aspects of this exhibition have such different levels of publicness. Some of it is about revealing something that isn’t often talked about while the other part of it is almost secretive, as it was in fact required to be. It doesn’t necessarily contradict, but does seem to have a certain type of duality to it. 

AR: I can understand why you would think that but that wasn’t the gallery’s decision, it was the artist’s decision. She set the ground rules and we had to follow them. A different artist who began with the same concept could have asked for it to be executed completely differently, and that may have been interesting too. An interesting public outcome of the exhibition was the media coverage. Mostly it was was intelligent and empathic, although a couple of pieces weren’t. There was also very broad coverage, outside the usual arts media. For example, there was a really good analysis of the exhibition in a specialist human resources trade journal, HR Review. I thought it was really interesting that they had been imaginative enough to realize that the exhibition was going on and had implications for their field.

For me, if you’re a trustee or a chair of trustees of a publicly funded arts charity like Chisenhale, you’re constantly having to think about the future of the organization, what its underlying values are, and how its mission and vision can be nurtured now and made sustainable for the long term. This exhibition threw up all sorts of interesting issues about that. Not simply about the employees’ ways of working, but the values of the organization. Quite rightly, it didn’t occur to any of us to say “don’t do it” even though the exhibition could have caused serious problems.

WFPD: Was it the gallery’s responsibility to come up with alternative plan in order to avoid any calamities that could be the result of five weeks of non-activity, especially for the upcoming exhibitions as you mentioned?

AR: Luckily, Yuri Pattison, the artist whose exhibition followed Maria’s, had been working with the gallery on a residency and research project for a year. He knew the team really well, and his project was unaffected. There weren’t any calamities as a result of the exhibition, but the responsibility of the staff and trustees was to try to anticipate them, by identifying possible risks and discussing solutions. Polly and her team did that brilliantly.

WFPD: Can we talk about the idea behind the exhibition itself for a minute? It spoke to me because everybody works in some ways, and I think that makes it relatable to a wider audience than just the art audience, although it’s not often talked about. Do you think this is one of the reasons why people reacted mainly in a positive way, or at least had a lot to say about it?

AR: I agree, it does throw up many interesting issues and as I said people’s subjective responses to it vary tremendously.

I think there are all sorts of ways of responding to it, and that they’re determined by our individual triggers and where people are at a particular time in their lives.

Some people thought the exhibition was pointless, and said so. Others were fascinated by it. Maria Eichhorn has worked in a similar way with institutions before. For one project, she suggested that the money allocated to pay for the development, production and installation of the show should be spent on restoring the building instead, whereas at Chisenhale, it was a withdrawal of labor and complete closure. Somebody likened it to throwing a grenade in and seeing what happened when it went off, and it felt like that.

WFPD: Do you think this exhibition had put the gallery in a different state afterwards? Were there any noticeable changes in some way?

AR: That’s a very good point which we’ve haven’t discussed internally. We all know that you tend to have your best and most productive ideas when you’re not working and doing something completely different so your mind is liberated, and you’re thinking more fluidly and laterally. I think the gallery probably benefited from that. Chisenhale has an incredibly good team, who are dedicated to the gallery and the artists they are working with. If I went to exhibition openings during that period, the curators and directors of other institutions would come up and say “How’s it going? We would love to have it too!” They really wanted the five weeks holiday!

WFPD: That’s the reaction you would get from almost anybody I think. I’m just curious, but were employees allowed to talk about what they were doing during the period among themselves?

AR: I assume so, but I don’t know if that was part of the the rules and regulations.

WFPD: That’s a good point, I was just being a bit nosy! It was just this component of the show that I know exists but couldn’t find out about anywhere, that’s why I was curious about it. 

AR: I can’t help, I’m afraid.

WFPD: Have you chosen this show mainly because of the experience of being involved in the organization of it?

AR: Well, I wasn’t involved in organizing the exhibition. I’m Chair of Trustees. Polly and the curatorial team organize the exhibitions. As a trustee of the gallery, you’re involved with its governance, which includes taking longterm strategic decisions and making sure that the organization is fulfilling its mission and vision, its funding agreements with the Arts Council, and so on. 

WFPD: But this exhibition specifically had quite real implications to you because of the conditions applied.

AR: Yes, it was quite a surreal experience which I think is what Maria Eichhorn wanted. I don’t think she had a vision of how it would affect people personally. I’ve been a trustee of art organizations for the past 25 years and I’ve been the Chair of Trustees of Chisenhale for five years, so over that period I’ve been involved in lots of different governance situations but this was a very surreal one. And you asked me to choose my best show. I’m hopeless at choosing bests, but I felt this was one that touched me personally in a very unusual way. It was a very interesting and productive experience. 

WFPD: So would it be a very different experience if you were just a visitor?

AR: I don’t know, you’ll have to ask the visitors.

Workshop for Potential Design is a platform for research and collaborative design practice founded by Bernadette Deddens and Tetsuo Mukai. They also run Study O Portable, a design studio.

Pete Collard is a curator based in London.

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