‘Stop Short-Changing Us’: The BANK exhibition file

In previous blog posts documenting the activity of Goldsmiths Library’s Special Collections and Archives department, we’ve taken a closer look at the Surrey Docks Studios and the innovative Daphne Oram archive both featuring in our archival holdings. It is a testament to depth of our collection that we are able to contrast the above collections with other vivid acquisitions such as the BANK exhibition file. This particular archive is a myriad of interesting material pertaining to the activity of the infamous BANK art collective, covering the period from 1991 through to 2003. The BANK exhibition file is a compelling assemblage that charts the organisations dissident journey through the boom of the 1990’s London art scene, and sure to be of interest to those interested in the excitement and controversy of the period.

BANK began life in very much the irreverent spirit it would continue in, with founding members Simon Bedwell and John Russell posting fabricated descriptions of fake art show openings in a humorous yet salient critique of what they perceived to be a vapid and commercially orientated art culture prevailing in London at the time. They would take the first steps on the road to notoriety in 1991 and hold their first show proper. The eponymous BANK emerged within the shadow of Goldsmiths College, as the collective appropriated an old disused bank on Lewisham Way, a landmark of the surrounding area that many former and current students will no doubt be aware of.

Old bank on Lewisham Way. Photograph courtesy of Geograph.

After initial shows were received with great interest and excitement, BANK would move its base to Shoreditch in the mid-90’s, commandeering disused spaces on Curtain Road and Underwood Street. In keeping with BANK’s precocious and anarchic spirit, this was to be some years before gentrification transformed the East London area from industrial dereliction into a fashionable cosmopolitan district. As the 2003 BANK retrospective notes, with some due resentment towards the sweeping changes that occurred:

At the time the area was a dump, deserted at weekends when even the pubs shut; but you could see where it was going. The return of the 80s aspect became the basis for [1994 show] Wish You Were Here; the property market was still in recession but London had a surplus of designer yuppies and boho trustafarians, and Curtain Road is on the edge of the financial district.

The DOG and Galerie Poo Poo spaces were both based in disused industrial spaces on Curtain Road and Underwood Street respectively, where some of Shoreditch’s’ busiest bars, numerable loft apartments and a Jamie Oliver’s restaurant now reside. A perusal of the list of BANK curated shows during this period is practically a directory of the most influential artists working today. Bob and Roberta Smith, Martin Creed, Peter Doig, Gavin Turk, 0rphan.drift>, Chris Ofili, John Cussans and Adam Chodzko are just a sample of the notable names that appeared in BANK shows during their ascensions in the art world.

Over the decade, BANK would continue to grow as a collective, with a revolving roster of members that included Dino Demosthenous, David Burrows, Andrew Williamson and the current Goldsmiths MFA lecturer, Milly Thompson. The most compelling feature of the BANK collective was how their objectives and work BANK stood in such strong contradiction to the upwardly mobile trajectory of Young British Artists (aka The YBA’s) also existing around the same period. Though the Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin’s (who participated in the spontaneous Viper/BANK TV project with 130 other artists) of the YBA’s were highly successful in bringing British art back into the spotlight, they would shifts the emphasis of art production towards greater financial imperatives. The rise of this money orientated culture was a trend that the BANK collective would consistently take aim at with their unique form of avant-garde satire.

As well as putting on shows featuring other artists’ work, BANK also achieved notoriety for their own creative output as they balanced their roles somewhere between that of artist and radical curator. A reoccurring convention between the various members was to exchange the dreary press releases for art shows of the day with various sections annotated and critiqued for satire and personal amusement.

What began life as a personal joke between members would eventually culminate in a fully fledged exhibition in its own right. The appropriately titled PRESS RELEASE debuted in early 1999, showing off some of these press releases in an act of mischievous situationist inversion of normal exhibition opening rhetoric. Citing Jacqes Derrida as an influence, BANK deconstructed the banality of the corporate art world press release in a critique of an art world practice they saw as prohibitive to creativity and understanding. The press release for PRESS RELEASE does not steer clear of inflammatory rhetoric when it declares:

PRESS RELEASE may seem to be a flippant, ‘good natured’ joke, but the amusing aspects to the project are merely irrelevant side-effects to what is a serious investigation into the sinister implications of this particular linguistic manifestation…Consequently: ‘This show deals with identity and gender could mean, “I want the person who is writing this to be successful. I want you to like them. I want you to provide them with a flat in the Barbican.”

PRESS RELEASE. Image courtesy of john-russell.org.

Another example of BANK’s abrasive irreverence towards the prevailing mainstream art culture was their White3 show, an overt tongue in cheek reference to the emerging White Cube gallery that hosted many of the YBA’s during their ascension. BANK saw White Cube’s blank and vacant adaptation of minimal monochrome aesthetics as anathema to what they envisaged a vibrant and engaging curatorial space to be. White3 inverted the now ubiquitous display of artworks upon brilliant white gallery walls by creating an actual white cube in the centre of the space and installing an array of  ‘spectacles’ around it that included copies of Beowulf and images of popular figures like the Queen, in a sly nod to Guy Debord’s Society of the Specatacle.

An array of ephemera and material pertaining to PRESS RELEASE and other BANK output can be found here in Special Collections & Archives. Kindly donated by founding member Simon Bedwell in 2006, content includes a self-titled book that includes interviews with the various members and detail information about exhibitions including images, alongside many of the notorious press releases including Zombie Golf, White3 and PRESS RELEASE. A listing of the BANK exhibition file contents can be found here. Get in touch with us at special.collections@gold.ac.uk or alternatively call on +44(0)20 7717 2295 to find out more or arrange collection viewings.

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