By Isabel Imhorst
RESOLVE Collective: them's the breaks
Barbican Art Gallery, 2023
Copyright: Adiam Yemane
“One condition - we have to sit on the installation.” This is what Seth Scafe-Smith, one third of design collective Resolve, tells me when he meets me at the entrance of the Barbican’s Curve. This is where they have just opened their latest project, a discipline bending exploration of institutional breakdown constructed from recycled materials collected throughout the city. It’s certainly a fitting introduction to this installation, where interaction is a central strategy. We quickly find a spot on some tarp draped across a brick structure, where Melissa Haniff and Akil Scafe-Smith soon join us.
Resolve is a Croydon-based collective working across architecture, design, technology and engineering to form an anti-institutional practice. Their work prioritises community collaboration and community knowledge, seeing design as a mechanism for political change.
them’s the breaks is the title of this installation, and breaks are what they play with - a mapping of the actual cracks in the Barbican’s concrete structures inspires the work, but also ties more broadly into the structural failings and decline that Resolve aim to address. It is, of course, also a phrase-turned-phenomenon thanks to Boris Johnson’s surreal resignation speech in 2022 - making it the first thing I want to ask Resolve about. Why this title? Seth
“We were in a position where we were thinking, we were wondering whether it was appropriate for us to be working in the Barbican at that time. And then in convincing, in deciding amongst the group that we wanted to do it, we decided that what we wanted to do was look at it and acknowledge all of its flaws and acknowledge all of its challenges. And also acknowledge this kind of landscape of institutional decline which the Barbican exists within. And the way that we wanted to do that is exploring it through this metaphor of the cracks. So, we're looking at the cracks in the institution, the cracks within the concrete, the cracks within the programme, all of these types of things. And so them’s the breaks, well that's like a play on words. So it symbolises our recognition with a fate that these institutions may have, and almost like absolving ourselves from the responsibility of trying to save the institution - and then also a play on cracks and breaks.”
The break that’s perhaps most obvious in this latest project is their break from traditional gallery structures. There’s a brief introduction to Resolve’s work near the gallery entrance, but otherwise visitors are guided through the installation in a very different way: the left hand wall of The Curve is almost entirely covered in scribbles, plans, and taped-up WhatsApp messages and emails. Besides the collective’s own notes and planning, the curator also tells me that the site team was encouraged to leave their notepads at home and make use of the wall instead.
The installation itself also takes an alternative approach to labelling and contextualisation: a sort-of love child of traditional plaques and Royal Mail shipping labels, the materials used in the installation are labelled by origin and potential future uses. Points of origin are several major art institutions around London, including the Barbican itself, but also the likes of the Royal Academy and the Tate. What particularly sticks out are exhibition signs from the Camden Arts Centre, fragments of which curve up the wall and are incorporated into sections of seating. The snippets of exhibition titles and dates make the most obvious hints towards one of the installation’s cohering threads: not simply exhibiting general institutional critique, but making visible the cracks and waste product of the art world in particular. Sitting or
standing on these signs, opposite the documentation of this exhibition’s building process, you feel caught between or in the process of gallery work, confronted with both pre- and post-exhibition realities.
Press material around the installation refers to the collective use of ‘foraged’ material. I’m curious about this term, that is tied so closely to the natural world and which at first may seem out of place in this space of art waste made art. Akil tells me about their projects last year, working in the countryside and learning rural techniques, which he says introduced them to these established modes of gathering and self-sustaining.
“All of our projects, they work with scarcity. So they work with this idea that we need to kind of use what we have around us. I think actually we do it kind of out of necessity. It's almost like a bad habit. When we started we didn’t have anything, we could only use the stuff that we had around us. When we continued and were allowed more resources, we
chose to use that resource as a way of reflecting on it and making labour visible. So the whole space does that, it kind of tries to make labour visible - we worked really closely with the tech team of Barbican, super super closely and collaboratively.
"And all of our notations, all of our workings out, all of our WhatsApp messages, our emails are all around the space and that's a way of making labour visible. I think those types of things are often the infrastructure behind sustainability.”
RESOLVE Collective: them's the breaks
Barbican Art Gallery, 2023
Copyright: Adiam Yemane
I feel that his polyvocality also extends into the opening of the gallery space, and in how Resolve have created space for ongoing conversation. At the end of The Curve, the space is dominated by a stage and structure constructed with art packing materials which tower, relatively isolated from the remaining installation, next to a large projected quote. As writer George Kafka describes an end to institutions, the projection creates empty space around the glass doors leaving the gallery space, and looking out into a typical Barbican hallway. The Curve itself, with its high ceilings and white walls, could almost make you forget about the brutalist emblem that surrounds it - but as I look through the glass doors, it feels like another piece of the puzzle of this project, in itself a construction whose purpose we can scrutinise and question and transform.
These empty spaces, or rather use of existing space, seems crucial to how this installation has been constructed. Resolve’s work explores the far reaching implications of design, and they seem tangible as I sit in front of the projector. There is room in this installation for histories and knowledges coming from elsewhere, for you to reflect on what you are bringing into the space. Melissa tells me that for them, this is not just a dimension of the finished installation, but their work and process as a whole:
“Something that's super important, is that we hope that people will be coming in and experiencing materials and understand that there are different ways to do and to make alongside other people. But there's also really great potential to draw on other people's experiences as well within the community. It's not just about materials that we were gathering, but also about the knowledge and expertise from community collaborations that we're trying to bring through this world.”
Seth adds: “So we talk a lot elsewhere, as well as thinking through making, about using the site as a resource. Which is learning from local materials, but also local knowledges. And that has been a basis for our own pedagogical practice: encouraging the idea that actually in your area, in your kind of immediate location, you are presented as an expert. You present a certain type of expertise that isn't valued, but is incredibly valuable if you're looking at it in a certain way.”
A sense of community and contribution is what I find myself looking for in many gallery spaces I enter - my worst nightmare is an exhibition where I feel like I will be shushed like a child in a library if I try to speak to anyone. On this Thursday, the Curve was the complete opposite of that. The voices reflected on the gallery walls extend into the space, as visitors fashion meanings and make connections among themselves. As I explore the space, I find myself testing out different installation pieces for comfort, rifling through the books and magazines near the entrance of the space, mapping the notes across the left hand wall. I hope this openness continues across the event programme that is planned for the next few months. When I ask Resolve about the importance of interaction in their work, this is where
they really seem to see the potential to inspire. Akil tells me that touch is crucial to their projects:
“For us it's always really important for people to be able to touch, sit on, and even sometimes break the thing that we're making. And because we've got the waste products of other institutions, I think that It’s almost fitting that it fits within a kind of active lifecycle. I don't think it makes a lot of sense, especially from where we're coming from, to then position these objects as rarefied. So accessibility in a very... pronounced sense of the word.”
“What we're thinking about, the message we're trying to communicate when it comes down to the kind of institutional fatigue, is really that there is a different type of organising afoot. And if the institution as a place, or also the institution of the social formation, is on its way out - what we're doing alongside of huge kind of ecology of practises, like tons and tons of people across the country [...] - this is a new form of thinking and new form of creating and making and that is something in which all of us are involved. That's a together thing, it’s a thing that you can touch and be part of, you are already part of to some extent. “
What I’m fascinated by are the concrete plans that Resolve had made for this ongoing participation, for the afterlife of this project. When I ask them what they think is most important for people to know about them’s the breaks,’ Seth points to the shipping labels for each piece. Besides a note about its origin, they also provide details for getting in touch with the collective, to facilitate a further use of the material. The continuation of the ‘lifecycle’ is actually a big part of the plan:
“So the final programme event is about a closing down sale - so it's working within the kind of imaginative framework that the Barbican itself is closing down, but what it is actually is we're taking down this exhibition and we want to distribute these resources as far and as wide as possible. So it would be really great to share that message and to allow people, to let people feel like they really can make a claim on some of this material."
It’s this approach that really hammers home the importance of this project for me. Exploring the space after our conversation, I ask myself concrete questions about what happens after - precisely because visitors are given a stake in the work, and a call to action to carry the materials and ideas of them’s the breaks with them after they leave. This is not an installation to ponder while standing in silence - bring friends, bring a notebook or a sketchbook or a camera, and spend time with the space. Think about how maybe you could make a new side table from that bit of wood, or a stage set from that tarp. Find the most comfortable seat in the room. While Resolve show us the breaks in the system and the
reality of decline, what stayed with me most in the days after seeing this project was all the ways that we can make something new.
RESOLVE Collective: them's the breaks is on at the Barbican Curve until Sun 16 Jul 2023.
Edited by Samuel Blackburn.
Images used by kind permission of the Barbican.