Wanted: cool head in a crisis
The Cobra Res project calls on artists to document national emergencies—and requires a rapid response
By Iain Millar. From Art Basel daily edition
Published online: 18 June 2014
It might be happening as you read this. Next time there is a national or international crisis with implications for the stability of British society, a British artist and curator will glance at news feeds and start sending emails. As the government’s plans begin to take shape, public discussions will be monitored, artists chosen and briefs issued to make work. Artists willing to take on the challenge are expected to respond with finished pieces within nine days. Those making written submissions get the luxury of a fortnight.
Theo Price is the founder of Cobra Res, an art response project that shadows the activities of the Cobra committee, a gathering of high-ranking UK cabinet ministers and officials from other agencies, such as the security services and the Metropolitan Police, that meets to co-ordinate the government’s actions in certain “emergency” circumstances. (The name Cobra is an acronym derived from Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, and although it is understood that the designation is no longer accurate, the name has stuck in the public imagination and in media reports.)
When Price, an artist and former political activist, first proposed a collective response to “the aesthetic quality of emergency politics”, his fellow artists suggested group critical sessions in which they reviewed each other’s work, a reaction that Price dismissed as akin to the assertion of Oscar Wilde (or George Orwell or George Bernard Shaw, depending on which source you choose to believe) that “the problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings”. It was only after completing an MA in art and politics at Goldsmiths that he felt the impetus to take up the project again.
Now, Cobra Res has released response number 1.3, a slickly designed DVD containing 15 works by 14 artists who responded to the Cobra meetings about the floods that devastated large parts of England last winter. Perhaps the best known contributor is Adam Chodzko, whose work Rising adds a video to a previously commissioned sound work, imagining the effect of the inundation of parts of Tyneside in north-east England as one person tries to make their way through flooded ruins.
Cobra Res 1.0 began in January 2013, when the Cobra committee met during the hostage crisis at the Tiguentourine gas facility in Algeria. That led to an exhibition held in a gallery in east London. Cobra Res 1.1 had to be handled with particular sensitivity, as the parallel Cobra meeting dealt with events at home that deeply affected the nation: the murder of the soldier Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich, London, in May 2013. A book was produced (and has since sold out), featuring contributions from the radical social historian Iain Boal, the cartoonist (and regular contributor to the Guardian newspaper) Steve Bell, the photomontage artists Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps, the international agency press photographer Adam Ferguson, and Barry Murphy, whose digital montage includes one of the killers and references to the controversial video game “Grand Theft Auto”. That, Price thought, might “cause us issues”. In fact, the book, as a whole, is careful rather than crass, thoughtful rather than sensational.
Cobra Res 1.2 came into being when the government committee met in response to the murders in a Nairobi shopping centre last September. The brief stated that the works must remain wrapped, in anticipation of a major exhibition in 2018 that will aim to show all the work that has been produced by that time, accompanied by a comprehensive book and catalogue that will discuss the pieces in historical and political contexts. The flood-inspired Cobra Res 1.3 DVD was the first response that did not come about as a direct reaction to the “war on terror”.
The project is run on a small budget. Price is reluctant to say exactly where the funds come from, but points out that potential supporters who have been keen on the work produced so far have had difficulty releasing money, as it is impossible to say when the next response will be initiated, or to predict its scale.
Cobra Res 1.3 comes in a numbered edition of 150, a result of budgetary constraints rather than a desire to create exclusive items. The book, Cobra Res 1.1, was crowdfunded. The production values are high, but “we make what we can afford”, Price says. And if the DVD were to sell out, as the book has, and more funds were available? “If they run out? We’ll make more. Limited edition 2.0.”
For more information and to buy the Cobra Res 1.3 DVD, visit www.cobra-res.info
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