Tracy Mackenna & Edwin Janssen: Naming a practice

Claire Doherty

I recently came across Mackenna and Janssen’s small booklet Till Now, a visual compendium of projects from 1998-1999. It was caught rather fortuitously inside the cover of Douglas Crimp’s On the Museums Ruins. Whilst not wishing to read too much into the accidental conjunction of the two, it occurred to me that the format of this modest booklet, set against Crimp’s academic tome, gives a surprisingly accurate indication of the shifts in the production and distribution of contemporary art since the publication of Crimp’s book in 1993.

Till Now, much like Easing Strangers (their project for One Clover and a Bee), is comprised of a series of constituent parts. The fragments of images and words in the booklet are captured from a series of six projects characterised by encounters between the artist duo and audience participants. Till Now aptly reflects Mackenna and Janssen’s nomadic practice: a process of art-making that takes on the specifics of context. We glimpse meetings, places and situations in the pages of Till Now. There’s no critical introduction nor analytical essay, no single authorial voice or iconic image. Instead words are anecdotal, sometimes polemical, indicating multiple voices and shown to be dispersed amongst a dizzying array of materials. The quotidian (flowers, embroidery, street) predominates, whilst Fine Art (object, museum, gallery) retreats. The artists appear of course here and there, but are noticeably undefined as ‘authors’ amongst other participants. Research and process are conflated, so that each project becomes both a sum of its parts and a component of the entire practice. And despite all these words and images, all these clues to what occurred, one is left with a sense of ‘not being there’, of being the stranger.

When Douglas Crimp published his series of essays ruminating on the post modern condition of art, there was little indication of the ways in which contemporary art practice would move from direct interventionist institutional critique to engage more directly with the everyday[1]. Despite the historical lineage of groups such as Fluxus and Situationist International, the early 1990s were still marked by a distinct polarisation between community art (broadly defined by a decentralisation of authorship and strategic collective activity) and gallery art (characterised by its promotion of the individual artist’s career and an obfuscation of process). Over recent years, however, we have witnessed the blurring of these categories towards the hybrid of ‘relational art’, as defined by French curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud.

One might say that Mackenna and Janssen are typical of this new generation of ‘relational’ artists, for whom a critique of authorship and the democratisation of art are implicit rather than explicit; for whom the role of the participant predominates through dialogical process; and for whom human relations or ‘the relational’ aspect of social context is a primary point of departure.

In many cases the ‘social context’ or ‘situation’ can be seen to have replaced the studio as site of process. Though Mackenna and Janssen’s response to context has often been to construct temporary studios in Tokyo, London, Birmingham and Glasgow – these sites have been public points of assembly and collaborative process, rather than private studios in the public domain[2]. The museum or gallery is occupied by the artists so that the dialogical process of making becomes exhibited, with the end-results (previously blankets embroidered with edited texts or online projects) being circulated as by-products.

In Nicolas Bourriaud’s definition of relational aesthetics, ‘spectator participation' is defined as one of the primary characteristics of current art practice[3]. Thus simulated play or service registers as ‘relational’, as it involves human interaction. This differs significantly from another notion of participatory art practice – namely Littoral Art (as defined by Grant Kester in a seminal paper ‘Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework for Littoral Art’). Kester suggests that Littoral Art breaks down the conventional distinction between artist, art work and audience – a relationship that allows the viewer to ‘speak back’ to the artist in certain ways and in which this reply becomes in effect a part of the work itself[4].”

Mackenna and Janssen’s work lies somewhere between these two definitions. They are certainly interested in the aspect of human inter-relations and employ everyday objects and familiar procedures to encourage interaction (relational), whilst incorporating the participants’ voices into the work (littoral), but they still remain the editors or directors of the process. Though the public’s responses are validated through incorporation into the end results, Mackenna and Janssen still control the parameters through which such responses are mediated. For example, whilst their series of drop-in studios are sites of exchange and dialogue, the specific subject of enquiry is chosen by Mackenna and Janssen and the responses edited. In the case of Easing Strangers, Mackenna and Janssen prescribe the extent to which we ‘see’ the life of the family from Leeuwarden. This is not a live broadcast, but rather a series of moving documents selected by the artists. In this sense, Easing Strangers bears a closer resemblance to ‘database filmmaking’ used in Reality TV programmes such as Big Brother. Mackenna and Janssen filter the information they acquire in response to the specifics of the domestic situation in Leeuwarden to compose a very particular narrative. Our capacity to control the mediation of the work is limited to the edges of each image.

Certainly one of the characteristics that Mackenna and Janssen do share with other artists engaged in relational or littoral practice is the high level of itinerancy and the consequent dilemma that each new context brings with it an entirely new and possibly unfamiliar set of physical and social circumstances[5]. Declan McGonagle recently described the artist as outsider – “poetic, eccentric and tragic figure, powerless and, crucially, disconnected, beyond rather than in his or her society. A current preoccupation with the idea of artist as tourist or nomad is just as disempowering. Detachment is not an option[6].” For Mackenna and Janssen, itinerancy is integral to the subject of their endeavours – namely locational identity.

Their cumulative series of encounters crucially inform one another. Adopting the alter egos of Ed & Ellis, Mackenna and Janssen provide a consistency of approach over a diversity of locations. What they ask of their participants is simple – to help them describe the essence of a place whether present or imagined. The subject of their work is the consequent process of describing as much as it is the final description. Consequently they manage to avoid becoming mere ethnographers of their chosen situations, as cautioned by Hal Foster in his article ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’. Foster suggests, “Such mapping may confirm rather than contest the authority of the mapper over site in a way that reduces the desired exchange of dialogical fieldwork[7]“.

Mackenna and Janssen’s projects have noticeably developed from an overt
interventionist critique of the public domain to a more reserved representation. In a series of recent articles for the UK journal Art Monthly, critic JJ Charlesworth addressed the significant increase in the profile of participatory and socially engaged practice, suggesting, “those practices that offer models of democratic and consensual participation do so in the actual context of social atomisation and political disengagement[8]” Probably closest to this assertion, was Mackenna and Janssen’s project List O (1998), in which they established a fictional political party in Schiedam. Acting as supporters they canvassed throughout the town centre, using the museum as their headquarters. The intervention occurred within the politically charged atmosphere of the town’s elections.

Easing Strangers marks a shift in emphasis. In form, it links directly with Differences Under the Skin, a video grid made as part of the Ever Ever Land project at CCA on Scotland and Scottishness and in emphasis perhaps is most closely linked with their text carpet project with the Tron Theatre, in which they explored the specifics of a work environment.

In Easing Strangers, the set of 18 moving images is composed as a tantalising visual record of family life which never entirely satisfies a desire for the complete picture. If the narrative of the text blankets could be said to accumulate from text to text, so here, as one moves around one fragment or from one image to the other, a composite picture forms of the domestic environment. Asked to respond to the relationship between individual and collective identity, Mackenna and Janssen conflate private space with two very public presentations – Leeuwarden’s town centre and online. The specific identity of the family is unimportant, however, as it comes (as Mackenna and Janssen must have hoped) to signify a generic record of life in the town. What lies at the heart of Mackenna and Janssen’s practice is the communication of the strangers’ dilemma – how do you name a place? The answer emerges through the video grabs of Easing Strangers, as it does through the text carpet and blankets and images and words of their booklet ‘Till Now’. Through the small things – the turns of phrase and the way in which a person puts down their coffee cup to the ways in which territory is marked out – through public assertion and private contemplation.


1. See Douglas Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins (Cambridge: Mass: MIT Press), 1993

2. See for further information on projects such as Ed and Ellis in Ever Ever Land, CCA, 1999-2000; Go Away: Artists and Travel, Royal College of Art, London (1999); Ed and Ellis in Tokyo, P3 Art and Environment, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Contemporary Art, Nadiff Gallery and the streets of Tokyo (1998).

3. Nicolas Bourriaud, ‘Relational Art’ (Paris: Les presses du reel), 1998 (translation: 2002), p. 31. Bourriaud refers specifically to artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Christine Hill, Philippe Parreno, Pierre Joseph, Felix Gonzales-Torres as engaged with relational aesthetics.

4. See Grant Kester, ‘Dialogical Aesthetics: A Critical Framework for Littoral Art’, Variant magazine, issue 10, spring/summer 2000 originally presented at the Critical Sites: Issues in Critical Art Practice and Pedagogy conference at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, September 1998, organised by Critical Access and Littoral in Ireland.

5. See Miwon Kwon, ‘One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity’ (Cambridge: Mass: MIT Press), 2002 for a particularly timely study of the itinerancy of artists.

6. Declan McGonagle, ‘Better to Stammer the Truth than Lie in the Tongue of Plato’, Liverpool Biennial exhibition catalogue, 2002, p. 15.

7. Hal Foster, ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge: Mass: MIT Press), 1996

8. J.J. Charlesworth, ‘MayDay! May Day!’ Art Monthly, May 2000, No. 236, p 16.

Bibliographical Information:

Originally published in One Clover and a Bee, One Clover and a Bee, v/h de Gemeente, Netherlands, 2003