Some years it feels like the Turner Prize shortlist is easier mocked than understood. Luckily, this year isn’t one of them - although the list is as surprising as ever.
Unusual works on this year's shortlist include Nicole Wermers’s Infrastruckur, which juxtaposes high fashion with a bare room, Bonnie Camplin’s multimedia The Military Industrial Complex and Janice Kerbel’s DOUG, a polyvocal song cycle (we're not sure what this is, either) which “chronicles a continuous stream of nine catastrophic events endured by a single individual”.
The most notable nominee, however, is Assemble: a London-based architecture and design collective. Formed in 2010, the group of 18 seek to make spaces that users feel connected to, addressing what it calls the “typical disconnection” between places and the people who live or work in them.
It may seem unusual to have an architecture collective on the shortlist for a visual arts prize, especially as Assemble isn't listed for a specific piece, but Assemble’s projects mirror the interventionist, political spirit that drives the work of their fellow shortlisted artists. Their building designs are sustainable and community-focused; an updated version of “Slow Architecture”, which prioritises ecological harmony over speed.
Assemble’s buildings are well known in London - even if visitors may not know who is behind them. OTOProjects, a workshop and performance space for radical music venue Cafe Oto, is built from the rubble of nearby demolished buildings . Borrowing methods from 19th century London-stock brick, a small team worked over the summer of 2013 to bag and compress the waste.
Further east is Yardhouse, an affordable workspace that Assemble helped build in the Olympic Park. Its simple structure uses an open mezzanine and large spaces to encourage collaboration, and the coloured panels that insulate the building have become a local landmark.
An experimental music venue and East London collaborative workspace may sound like gentrification clichés. But the Turner Prize committee cite a rather different Assemble work in their shortlist announcement; one which undermines any such accusations.
Granby Four Streets is a project based around a knot of parallel roads in Toxteth, Liverpool. Built at the turn of the 20th century to house local workers, the roads suffered after the 1981 Toxteth riots, and houses earmarked for demolition and redevelopment were instead left to fall into blight.
It was local residents who began to fight back, forming a Community Land Trust (CLT) and regenerating the area themselves. They repainted the empty houses, cleaned up the streets and began a monthly market.
When Assemble joined the project, they collaborated with the CLT to refurbish the streets’ housing and communal areas. Building on the work the locals have already done, they sought to offer “local training and employment opportunities” while “nurturing the resourcefulness and DIY spirit that defines the four streets”. Their plans are designed to honour the rich architectural and cultural heritage of the area, while also opening up public space by re-appropriating disused houses.
Erika Rushton, Chair of the original CLT in the area, told us: “Despite surrounding dereliction pervading for over twenty five years, Assemble, like Granby residents, could imagine this place as beautiful, busy and full of people. Some artists seek to decorate the world, some to shock it, some to reflect or question it. Assemble are working with us to change it.”
There’s no denying that Assemble’s projects are among the more concrete – excuse the pun - works that have found a place on the Turner shortlist, its nomination suggest a different direction for the prize. Their collective's integration of artistry and pragmatism seems in particularly sharp contrast to abstract pieces like Martin Creed’s 2001 Work no.227: the lights go on and off (which was, for those who have forgotten, pretty much what it sounds like).
But the concerns at the heart of Assemble’s work are not new to the Turner committee. Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 work House, a negative imprint of the inside of a demolished Mile End home built in concrete, also forced questions about community, evolving neighbourhoods and how we inhabit space. As one judge answered in reply to questioning about Assemble's inclusion on the shortlist, “In an age when anything can be art, why not have a housing estate?"
Indeed, Assemble’s work in Liverpool could be an answer to Whiteread’s in London. As global commerce continues to march roughshod into the former East End, Granby Four Streets offers an alternative, thoughtful vision of development. That Assemble have found a place on the Turner shortlist now is a subtle but important statement about the integral role art plays in today’s evolving cities; and a reminder that talent needn’t only be deployed to overcome local resistance. With elegance and ambition, you can arrest it – and make something beautiful.
A free exhibition of the four shortlisted artists’ work will run from October 2015 to January 2016 at Tramway, Glasgow. The Turner Prize will be announced in a ceremony in December.
All images courtesy of Assemble.