In 1965, Barbara Steveni had what she describes as her “eureka moment.” While collecting discarded industrial materials for herself, then-partner John Latham and fellow Fluxus artists, Daniel Spoerri and Robert Filliou, she decided that she and her collaborators should not just gather industrial materials for assemblage or performance, but form a coalition of artists to enter industry itself. A year later the Artist Placement Group (APG) was officially launched by Steveni, John Latham, Barry Flanagan, David Hall, Anna Ridley and Jeffrey Shaw. The APG would go on to include many other artists, including Stuart Brisley, Garth Evans, Ian Breakwell, George Levantis, Leonard Hessing, Andrew Dipper and Ian Munro, as well as, a rotating Board of Trustees that included Nancy Balfour, Frank Martin, Jurgen Harten, Nicholas Tresilian and Christopher Pate.[1]

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the APG negotiated over nineteen artist placements in the U.K. and Western Europe. The Group began with high profile industries, such as Garth Evans’s placement with the British Steel Corporation and Andrew Dipper’s placement with Esso Petroleum. However, Steveni’s negotiation of the Whitehall Civil Service Memorandum with the U.K. government in 1972 would expand the role of the APG artist to government organizations, including John Latham’s placement with the Scottish Office and Ian Breakwell’s placement with the National Department of Health and Social Security. In order to further aid in expanding and re-defining the language used to describe the role of the artist, the APG replaced the term artist with “Incidental Person.” In the late 1970s, Steveni and Tresilian continued this effort with the APG’s “incidental person approach to government” in Europe by working with government ministries and proposing placements in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Throughout these different phases of the APG’s practice, Group members were in correspondence and worked with many influential individuals such as U.K. Minster of Technology Tony Benn, Secretary of State for Employment Barbara Castle, artist Joseph Beuys and prominent psychiatrist R.D. Laing.

Tony Benn and Barbara Steveni at Tate Archive, 2005

Each APG placement was negotiated by Steveni through an “Open Brief” that outlined the expectations for the artist and the organization. As its name indicated, there was no predetermined outcome for the placement. Instead, the intention was for the artist to enter an unknown context and ask questions. In the APG’s words, the “context is half the work.”[2] While each placement and artist had their own specific agendas and outcomes, in general the APG’s incidental people critically questioned perceptions of what was considered of value in capitalist production, left versus right political affiliations and the organization versus the individual.[3] The progress and outcomes of many of the APG’s placements were realized in the 1971 exhibition Art and Economics at the Hayward Gallery, London, U.K.

In addition to placements, the APG’s varied art production took the form of conferences, texts and administrative “paperwork.” However, in all of their work, the APG argued that their innovative use of language (Open Brief, Incidental Person) and the process of their placements could potentially shift perspectives to envision a more inclusive world economy that would prioritize long-term benefits over short-term monetary gain. Their economic platform is visualized through the APG’s group symbol of the Delta turned on its side; a modification of the classical symbol that signifies the potential for change. The legacy and impact of the APG’s work provided an intuitive and critical model for interdisciplinary collaboration that would broaden the scope of the artists’ role in society and subsequently forever change the landscape of artistic practice.

[1] Artist Placement Group, “Group Policy,” 1965, John Latham Archive, Flat Time House, London, U.K.

[2] Artist Placement Group, “Economic Proposal,” 1965, John Latham Archive, Flat Time House, London, U.K.

[3] Artist Placement Group, “British Industry and the Purpose of the APG,” Date unknown, John Latham Archive, Flat Time House, London, U.K.

For more information: Voices of art

Text by Katherine Jackson