‘Get a puppy, puppies are fucking cute,’ the man says, shifting in front of a microphone. He is improvising advice for dealing with anxiety. The next person offers reasons not to move to California and simply states: ‘Americans. And that I work all day.’ Her last comment drives it home a bit, given that the people goofing and joking here are a mixed bunch of freelancers and migrants who have responded to a call-out, from groups like the Independent Workers’ Union, the Latin American Rights Service and Migrants Organise, for people to take part in a series of free comedy workshops. You could make an easy parallel of the making-it-up-as-you-go-along amid the endless uncertainty of life approach with the do-or-die pressures of the comedy stage: timing is everything, and, generally, it is not within your control. But it might be a way to channel the nervous energy and claim some form of agency back with laughter. The workshop is building up towards ROUTINE, 2018, when this group will present several stand-up comedy evenings as part of ‘Laughing Matter’, the collective practice They Are Here’s current exhibition at Studio Voltaire. Alongside the comedy nights, the exhibition holds a series of motion-triggered laugh tracks and over 50 borrowed ‘welcome’ mats. Laughter Track, 2018, turns the sitcom convention into a politicised group portrait, with the recorded laughs of, for example, people dealing with depression or asylum seekers; WELCOME, 2018, in turn, was sparked from an episode of the Simpsons, where Homer decided to try his hand at contemporary art: ‘steal all the doormats in town!’
As the long lead-in and whatever onward effects of ROUTINE (whether it heralds new comics, or even a few priceless one-liners), the space and time constraints of an exhibition don’t quite hold They Are Here’s work neatly. They Are Here, led by Harun Morrison and Helen Walker, is an organisational chameleon of sorts, creating long-term projects of which there are incidental outputs and occasional glimpses from the timeline: some are events and some are discrete artworks, like videos, sound works or installations. The work of They Are Here is described as ‘games’ or as a ‘virus in a pre-existing system’. The group’s projects examine issues of contemporary togetherness and inter-dependence: experimenting with individual agency and communal synchronicity, and when it hits or misses; prodding at the conventions that keep some people invisible or unheard; trying to find where we set the limits of work, play or escape. But these aren’t so much themes as perhaps the media of the work themselves. Some readers might have heard about They Are Here’s project at the end last year at Tate Modern, 40 Temps, 8 Days, 2017, held in the new wing of the museum. The group employed the same temp agency that Tate uses to hire staff to pay people to come and spend the day doing whatever they want. Conversely, it was the gallery visitors who had to clock in, and who could then join this leisurely temporary staff to play video games or chess, or perhaps chat about the degrading proliferation of the gig economy and zero-hour contracts, before then clocking out. Other projects have had a similar focus: Precarity Centre was a weekend of events staged at Grand Union in Birmingham in 2016 and last year at Studio Voltaire, hosting free movement workshops, talks on permaculture and social housing, and self-defence classes for women. That these descriptions merely touch on the planning and outline of these projects is symptomatic: the majority of the work is held, intimately and potently, in thousands of tiny gestures and interactions, exchanges and conversations, which by their nature must be elusive and unattainable to the casual art consumer.
Other projects have similarly begun from more unstructured and indeterminate beginnings. For instance, discussions with a group of asylum seekers and refugees in London led to the collection of seeds, which in turn led to turning what was a derelict playground in a corner of Finsbury Park into a communally cultivated garden. Ayandeh Garden, 2016-, is a shifting, vegetal portrait, with people attempting to grow food from their respective home countries, a practice that shapes the cooking events and meetings of the group throughout the year. A sister project is currently underway which will turn a car park in Dagenham into a community garden. They Are Here’s recently initiated project Twenty Five Seven, 2018, started simply enough, using open-source code to build a 25-hour clock from scratch. The plan is for the duo to submit themselves to a 25-hour day for 25 days, and invite various people to spend that extra hour with them: given the gift of time, how we choose to spend it and who we choose to spend it with is the most basic political building block. People taking part in these various projects fade in and out as life dictates, reappear in other projects, and often provide the spark for what the next direction might be. They Are Here harness the flexibility and amorphousness of the contemporary artist as a tool, shifting consciously between ways of working that are conversely participatory, inviting people to take part in predetermined structures, and collaborative, by working with people intensively to figure out what those structures might be. It is important to note that those who take part in the projects, such as the aspiring comedians, are paid properly for their time. This isn’t Big Society volunteer artwork.
We might call They Are Here’s work a form of bureaucratic science fiction: creating structures that hover just above and outside those of the oppressively monetised present. Or, we might riff on Gilles Deleuze’s term from his 1983 book Cinema 1, ‘theanyspacewhatever’ (and its subsequent use by Philippe Parreno, Liam Gillick et al to apply it to the gallery space) to think of their vision of art as theanylabourwhatever, the artist refiguring their role, agency and visibility constantly according to context, need and feeling. Either way, what They Are Here suggest is that the possibilities for reconfiguring the present aren’t bombastic, grandiose gestures; the means of change are discussion, debate, organisation: they’re already here.
Originally published in Art Monthly, No. 417, June 2018