Making Bank: Art Galleries Get Their Home Work Marked

An exhibition at Berlin’s Neu Galerie explores the notorious ‘Fax-Baks’ of British collective, BANK

© the artists and Galerie Neu, Berlin – Photography by Stefan Korte

Press releases for art shows, the handout bumf by the gallery door: who reads this stuff? The full title of the exhibition here gives a sharp foretaste of BANK’s coruscating attitude to such communiqués:

Status Quo

We wanted to paint the walls pink and blue and have a golf buggy in the gallery but all we got was this white cube graveyard.

This mouthful is a warning that we’re in for a litany of in-jokes of a strongly astringent bent.

BANK, formed in 1991, were a London-based collective (the core members being Milly Thompson, Simon Bedwell, and John Russell) who, in 1998, came up with a project called the Fax-Bak Service. They proofread and marked over 300 press releases and subsequently returned them by fax, with corrections, to the galleries. BANK were pithy and, like 10cc, had a yen for making marks: unsurprisingly many galleries were distinctly unimpressed and unamused. A selection of Fax-Bak replies line the walls here in a grid that may or may not be a piss-take on Hanne Darboven’s conceptual sequences. BANK distrust pretension, so how’s that for a grandiose comparison?

BANK had a sommelier’s nose for cant, BS, pomposity. We might bug them by quoting Hélène Cixous. She once wrote, “here is such a thing as marked writing” but we can be pretty sure she wasn’t referring to homework handed back to striving schoolchildren. And that’s precisely what BANK did by giving marks out of ten to each press release. The original authors of these (often nugatory) gallery missives were anonymous. Most were composed in clotted argot, crammed with incomprehensible jargon, and frequently heavily cribbed and over-referenced. The names of twentieth-century French philosophers feature heavily. BANK thought they could be helpful/rude to the galleries and so set themselves up as a ‘free advice’ outlet. They did this with a deliberately ‘holier-than-thou tone’ and a knowing ‘hypocritical undercurrent’, caveats they own up to in the press release for this show. It’s not a bad example at that. I’d give it 7/10.

© the artists and Galerie Neu, Berlin – Photography by Stefan Korte

The scribbled comments BANK made are often juvenile and funny, albeit occasionally offensive – even hurtful at times, particularly if you were on the receiving end and/or had a sense of humour bypass. Here are some examples:

“BANAL, ILLITERATE AND UNADVENTUROUS. SHOULD GO FAR AS A CURATOR 2/10”

This appended to a release issued by the Royal College of Art. Note the underlining and caps for extra emphasis on that one. Or how about:

”You’re making the exhibition sound REALLY BORING 0.25/10”

BANK seem to really have it in for Time Out magazine as with:

”Too much like a Time Out review, all over-careful. Keep trying though!”

And then there’s:

“‘Compelling’ is a Time Out mannerism, don’t use it.”

Platitudes long favoured by stupefied teachers litter the margins: “Must try harder” or “read more books”. Then there are scare words that leap out, biting criticisms such as “meaningless”, “verbiage”, “wooly”, “dull”, and “prissy”. Easy to imagine gallery faces reddening with rage when they encountered a fax with that kind of abuse. Only a handful pass: one gets 10/10 but that’s in irony at the show’s title: “Eliminate the Negative”. The worst gets 0.002/10. Don’t go there.

Modern French philosophers crop up again and again as with:

“A heady mixture of O level Baudrillard and twee, flowery breathless prose. Makes me feel sick.”

Being a fellow pedant I’m forced to point out that this should be ‘O’ level. Another scold warns the writer should “try not to be so in love with sounding clever”. Best not to take that too personally. The insults pile up:

“There’s really no excuse for this slack, vacuous journalese”

“This is a press release not estate agent selling pitch”

“You keep telling us things are important: I’m becoming suspicious”

“I fully expect to be bored shitless”

“Wake me up before you finish will you – I’m almost asleep.”

The majority of BANK’s London-centric Fax-Bak’s avoid making comments about other artists but they are quite rude about Dame Rachel Whiteread calling her work “vacuous”. But there is pathos at work here too. The sheer number of artists listed in these press releases makes you question: “Who?” or “Where are they now?” Whatever happened to that berserker you met one night down at the Pride of Spitalfields? And that guy telling you so-and-so is the next big thing because they’re “totally bonkers”? So many artists long forgotten, un-shown. Many of the galleries are now long gone too.

© the artists and Galerie Neu, Berlin – Photography by Stefan Korte

Then you ask of the texts themselves: did the artist write this gibberish? A notable exception from serious censure is Sean Landers. His blurb is genuinely amusing and well-written. So, are we seeing an attack on the system here or are BANK hypocrites, endorsing business as usual? Answer yes to both. Ultimately, and perhaps deliberately, the markings become as tiresome as the constant rebukes from a bullying teacher. The corrections of linguistic distortion, the tautologies and clichés, drain the reader as much as the mistakes themselves. The effect is not unlike ploughing through a collection of bad reviews, as with, say, Hatchet Jobs by Dale Peck (2004). You end up exhausted, pummelled.

What exactly do we have here? A work of ‘art’ that features writing about art writing. Brad Haylock and Megan Patty have recently co-edited a book called Art Writing in Crisis. In it Dan Fox says “many of the new-breed curators were terrible writers” and goes on: “it became common to joke about not understanding what the press release meant”. Fox could be talking about BANK’s targets, the “art-speak drones who reviewed shows in a plod-plod of deathly exsanguinated language. (Why use one word when you could use three neologisms and a tautology instead?)” Fox prefers those “writers who had cut their teeth on music, literature, or movies”. Right on, brother.

One shudders at the idea of submitting text to BANK for review. Imagine a fact checker from hell at the New Yorker crossed with a dire English teacher – the one who threw a duster at your skull for getting your semi-colons all wrong. Ironically this show is pretty useful for the freelance writer. BANK gives hard lessons in how not to write. You could view the Fax-Bak’s as playful: but be careful. BANK insists that “playfulness” as a word is “banned”. Maybe they’d prefer to use the word “ludic”. Joke! Given all the above I’ve gone through this review a hundred times or more and hope, at the risk of being ingratiating, that there’s not too many mistakes. Mark for the show 6/10. Proleptic score for this review 4/10. Ever the optimist.

BANK: Status Quo, We wanted to paint the walls pink and blue and have a golf buggy in the gallery but all we got was this white cube graveyard is on at Galerie Neu, Berlin, until 5 March

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