On Thursday, September 3, 2015, Peacock Visual Arts’ James Vass will be “live printing” a work by the artistic duo Hell Yeah (Katie Guthrie & Mike Hughes) at BrewDog pub in Aberdeen; the first people through the doors, at 7PM, get a free print. As an art historian who researches performance art, I love the idea of both free art and live art. There is the added appeal of socializing over a fine tipple. Combining all of these promises to make for a very fine evening.
There is reason that prints will be made live in BrewDog on Thursday night: the event will be filmed and the print will then be “ActivCanvas” enabled with the help of Art Retail Network. ActivCanvas is an App that connects the artist and the consumer of the artwork—be it a viewer or prospective buyer. ActivCanvas allows the artist to tell the story behind the artwork—an element that is often lost when the work hangs on its own in a gallery, museum or room. The people at Art Retail Network believe that artists should be able to make a living doing art; ActivCanvas helps the artists to tell their stories, which might spark an interest in someone who might like to own a work of art, but doesn’t know much about it. Those coming to BrewDog on Thursday night will become part of the story of Hell Yeah’s print, which will be hung in all of the BrewDogs around the world, so that future visitors will be able to scan the image with their smartphones and tablets and discover the story behind the work of art.
Why is this important? When presented with a work of art whose meaning isn’t immediately obvious or clear, it is often the story that can bring its significance to life. As a lecturer in art history and visual culture, a lot of what I do is storytelling—when an artwork was created, how, and by whom, in what context—not to mention what the story was that the artist wanted to tell with the work of art. Storytelling is as old as human history; it helps us understand and connect with one another. Storytelling is even being touted as a leadership technique, as a way of identifying the narrative in one’s organization, and telling that narrative in order to inspire others to work toward mutual aims. If one feels part of the story, he or she is more likely to work toward realizing it.
One of the reasons that art can be challenging is that a lot of it comes down to taste—just as some people prefer real ale to pale ale, stout to lager, there are some works of art that appeal and others that do not. Knowing the story behind the work of art can move the viewer past that initial “I like it or I don’t” stage, in a way that it perhaps can’t with food or beverages. Taking a tour of the Guinness factory and learning the story of how beer is made probably won’t make a person like the way it tastes any more or less, but knowing the story behind a work of art can provide the viewer with a different perspective on the work of art, making the image come to life, which might make it more interesting too look at, or to own.
Although this event at BrewDog is truly unique and pioneering in its combination of art, beer and tech, it is not the first time in the history of art that art and beer have been brought together. Two examples come to mind: in 1970, American artist Tom Marioni created an artistic action entitled The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art, wherein he invited sixteen friends to the Oakland Museum in California on a Monday evening, when the museum was closed, to drink beer with him. The beer bottles and chairs that remained behind were left as an installation in the gallery for the remainder of his exhibition there.
In Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, artists used the local tradition of frequenting the pub as an alternative form of art. The 1970s was the era of normalization, following the failed Prague Spring; it was the time when the communist government cracked down on dissents (including experimental artists) and aimed to bring things in line with the communist ideology. The Order of Crusaders for Pure Humor without Banter, which was formed in the early 1960s, aimed to inject art into life and everyday routines, for example, meetings at the pub. Many of the group’s actions revolved around activities and games in the pub. In one action, organized by one of the group’s directors, Eugen Brikcius, entitled Still Life (1967), the artist invited participants to come to an abandoned area near the Sovovy mlýny building in Kampa, a picturesque area of Prague on the banks of the Vltava River. Everyone was asked to bring a half-liter mug and fill it at a nearby pub. The consumption of beer in both conventional and unconventional ways (from a funnel) was included as part of the happening, as the artist turned the everyday action of beer drinking and socializing at the pub into an art action and still life. Interestingly, Tom Maroni traveled through Eastern Europe in the 1970s, following his Beer performance; it is not known if he met with these artists.
What the three of these projects demonstrate is the social aspect of art that developed in the second half of the twentieth century. Artists shifted from focusing on the object they produced to the process of making it, and the interaction with the viewer. Creating artworks that are in effect social situations highlight that element of communication and interaction. I think that Marioni, The Order of Crusaders for Pure Humor without Banter and Brikcius were on to something in combining art and beer. Wine is usually served at exhibition openings in museums, but with Britain (like the Czech Republic) having such a strong pub culture, a better strategy to make art more accessible seems to be to bring it to the pub. Art Retail Network, Peacock Visual Arts and Hell Yeah Will do that at BrewDog on the 3rd—and who knows what stories will be created together!