Beck’s futures

Submissions for this year’s Beck’s Futures awards were predominantly video-based. Oliver Bennett zooms in on some of the finalists’ work

Two decades ago, there were no high-profile awards getting press coverage in the visual arts. Now there are several jostling for attention.

Top is the Turner, with ever-closer competition from the Citibank photography prize, the Jerwood Applied Arts prize and since 1999, Beck’s Futures. The latter is considered by many to be the edgiest – it’s also the most financially rewarding, as the winner gets £24 000 and the eight runners up get £4000 each.

But how is it different? Well, the Beck’s Futures mission is to reward ‘an artist on the verge of a major breakthrough’, and thus it sets itself up as a kind of talent-spotting agency: a poisoned chalice, surely. ‘Well, in Britain everyone is riding for a fall,’ says Institute of Contemporary Arts director Philip Dodd. ‘But I do believe that if you want to see the emerging concerns of artists in the country, it’s worthwhile looking at Beck’s Futures.’ Indeed, some of the first year’s output, in particular David Shrigley, but also Roddy Buchanan and Chad McPhail, have since become moderately well-known.

The art is chosen from nominations, avoiding the ‘favoured gallery’ critique levelled at the Turner. It also looks away from London – the prize has previously seen a Scottish orientation, and among this years’ nominees are four graduates of Glasgow School of Art – the implication being that it’s creating distance from London’s [Charles] Saatchi and [Nicholas] Serota mission control. ‘It matters to me that it travels [the show goes to Southampton and Glasgow],’ says Dodd. ‘The Beck’s Futures show shouldn’t just be for a small cognoscenti in London.’ Nor, he adds, is it necessarily a young prize: last year it showed 52-year-old photographer Tom Wood.

So Beck’s Futures has a handle on tomorrow’s art stars, is non-partisan (except insofar as it has sponsors) and de-centralised. Does it support a particular artistic tendency, as has been a criticism of the Turner? ‘The simple answer is no,’ says Dodd. ‘It offers a wide scope, although you can find trends if you wish. There has been a Pop Art-ish feel to it before, and this year there’s the sense of a new Situationism.’

Dodd refers to the 1968 anarcho-artistic grouping that influenced Punk and took part in street actions. Certainly, something of that era – as well as a strong echo of the intense 1970s performance art from artists like Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic – is echoed in the Beck’s list.

Take David Sherry, whose work shows him carrying a bucket of water around for a week, acting strange at real job interviews and being interviewed while joined navel-to-navel to a colleague by an umbilical cord. In Beck’s Futures, Sherry shows his video Stitching, in which he sews pieces of wood to the soles of his feet.

Then there’s art collective Inventory, whose work includes Coagulum: the group formed a ‘clot’ in London’s Oxford Street to disrupt the flow of pedestrians. Inventory also staged a football match on the Mall, using Admiralty Arch as one goal and the gates of Buckingham Palace as the other: ‘fierce sociology’ is its rubric.

Francis Upritchard has made a one-eyed mummy sculpture called Save Yourself, which vibrates when people pass it, and Alan Currall shows a parodic video diary tribute to his ‘best friend’. There’s video from Rosalind Nashashibi and Bernd Behr, who shows found footage.

It’s even got an artist to have made the tabloids (one headline read ‘The Ultimate Con’) in Carey Young, who has out-reduced Turner Prize-winner Martin Creed (the lights-on-and-off man) with a piece that so far consists of a hidden confidentiality contract signed by a Beck’s official; the point being to stop the sponsors using her art for marketing. Earlier pieces by Young include Everything You’ve Heard is Wrong, in which she stood on a stepladder at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, wearing business attire and offering her thoughts on public speaking.

‘A kind of politics is back,’ says Dodd. ‘We didn’t set out to find this strange edginess, but it’s in response to a large part of the artistic culture, which has withdrawn and become like the Bates Motel… no-one wants to go there.’

Artist Michael Landy, chair of the judges this year – he infamously shredded all his possessions in an Artangel project at the empty C&A store in Oxford Street – has long used the language of mercantilism in his work. ‘My generation was criticised for not showing much interest in the social or political agenda,’ says Landy, who at 39 years old has enjoyed full YBA (Young British Artist) ascendancy credentials: Goldsmiths, Freeze and the Karsten Schubert gallery. ‘Who’s to say? But there’s a feeling that there’s a new generation with new ideas. My age group has had a fair crack of the whip.’

Landy had two days to trawl through hundreds of slides and videos: indeed, he says that about 90 per cent of the work was video-based. ‘It’s been quite an eye-opener,’ he says. ‘I hardly knew of any of the artists before. It was diverse stuff. You could make several shows from it. The thing to remember about the Beck’s Futures is that it isn’t an exhibition as such. Of course, you look for common things. It’s human to want to find themes.’

One vague theme that impressed Landy were the street actions. ‘One artist took a photograph of a scorpion and a diamond on a street in Amsterdam, then just left it,’ he says, referring to Glaswegian artist Lucy Skaer. ‘I like those kinds of artworks that come up against everyday life and find it a bit odd.’ Another he liked was ‘cybersquatter’ Nick Crowe, who makes seditious fake homepages with names like

It’s competitive for competitions, of course. And it has been noted that Beck’s Futures has had a celebrity judge aspect. ‘They’re not vapid celebs, protests Dodd. ‘We’ve had Zadie Smith, one of the most interesting writers to emerge for years, Jarvis Cocker, who is from an art school background, and Marianne Faithful, who has made films with Jean-Luc Godard and knew Andy Warhol.’

And it’s got a potboiling website, www.becks, which takes a tabloid-meets-Loaded approach to the subject matter. Among the items is a spot called Art or Arse? in which readers are invited to send in bits of work and vote whether they are genuine, and Art Bitch, a 3AM girl routine on the art world.

Then there’s a Pass Notes-style item called Who to Schmooze and Who to Lose with three people on it, including Jay Jopling, Matthew Higgs and Anthony Fawcett, the latter described as a ‘highly influential’ fixer for ‘a variety of big brands including Beck’s’.

It makes sense of the breathless phrase from sponsor The Times – ‘a cooler version of the Turner’ – and it may be a parody. But it jars slightly with a prize that avows to upload a fresh slice of artistic vitality.

Beck’s Futures 2003 is on from 5 April until 18 May at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1

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