Brown&Brí: Provisional Positions in an Overdetermined Field

an essay by Daniel Jewesbury

As artists we complain often that we are being instrumentalised by the demands of others: funders, politicians, institutions both public and private. But we also routinely instrumentalise ourselves and our practices. We allow ourselves to engage with artistic processes as methods for research, but only to the extent that they lead to some end product in a more or less definitive form. The art object, the pithy condensation of months or even years of experimentation and knowledge-gathering, issues a straitening injunction to us from the future, as we indulge ourselves in our enquiries: it reminds us that the product, and not the process, is the point of all this.

Rachel Brown and Brighdín Farren’s collaborative artistic practice is comprised of highly diverse enquiries and experiments. It can be hard to describe their focus; their work together is not directed toward easily identifiable ends. They make things, perform actions and set up longitudinal projects, but every time they do so, the aim is to create another ambiguous space into which they can enter: these things, actions and projects are not the products of their enquiries, but the means for conducting them. Brown & Brí set up situations to assess how they enable them to learn about ideas in which they’ve become interested. To understand general relativity, they experiment with the traditions of still life. To become better acquainted with the history of cosmology, they present the origins of opera. Conventions of gesture open out into the relationship between the dimensions of space and time. This approach, of improvising the conditions in which it’s possible to make particular connections, and think about their meaning, requires them to be serial tacticians, often making discoveries retrospectively, and indirectly.

Art requires the invention of terminologies to describe each new innovation. Artists who eschew the art object are described as working with dematerialised or conceptual processes, or presumed to be engaged in social or relational practices. Often these descriptors obscure more than they reveal. Brown & Brí are not conceptualists; they don’t make a totem out of particular repetitive decision-making processes. Nor are they engaged in social practice, in which prolonged dialogue with a community supplants aesthetic processes. They are not relational artists either. They do collaborate with others, but mostly these are people selected for their expertise: mathematicians, scientists, musicians, other artists, other business owners. The staged or performed elements of their work are not, by and large, participatory encounters, in the strict sense.

If one wanted to find a thread that connects the numerous projects that Brown & Brí have undertaken, it is not a particular thematic or technique but rather their deep interest in methodology, in the formulation of methodologies as ways to think or know something differently. Methodology can be understood here as the definition of the set of methods, techniques and disciplinary approaches that are necessary to conduct a particular enquiry. Brown & Brí are engaged in a kind of pure methodological enquiry; they are fascinated by the questions with which they are engaged at any point, but they are not problem solvers, or summarisers. Rather, it is the cultivation of ways to think that drives each project they devise. In order to understand why a specific city space is under-used, they set up a company, designed, renovated and licensed an old coal barge, and then ran a cafe-bar as an urban experiment – who will come here, what will they do, what will happen around it? To investigate the dynamics of urban development in post-conflict Belfast, they viewed dozens of empty office spaces in the city’s redundant Victorian buildings and tried to establish a live-work space together. They think expansively: they have no studio practice, and move fluidly between roles as the situation demands. Sometimes they are thought of as artists, or curators, or programmers. The categorisations are not useful or meaningful for them. In every role and each situation, the meta-question that comes to the fore is what happens if we ask these questions this way? This approach carries through to their other employment where their roles require them to set up tangible and intangible situations for engagement blurring the distinction between artistic production and work as administrator or civil servant.

We are used to accepting that our intellectual disciplines entail a kind of historical inevitability, that they are somehow simultaneously the result of and the condition for knowing the reality that we are gradually revealing, neutrally recording, like palaeontologists or archaeologists scrabbling in the strata. Yet, as Rachel Brown suggests “observation is the only truly active thing we can do”. The methodologies that we define do not merely help to unveil ‘knowledge’ as a collection of objective facts, they also produce the conditions for a specific understanding of that knowledge. The way we shape our disciplines determines what we think we know. How do we engage more directly with this determining activity, with this ideology of thought? How do we uncover the gaps and collisions that have produced our disciplines? How might we bring into focus the disavowed continuities between practices of magic, divination, theatre, and classical and quantum science; or that point where a practice or a way of thinking undergoes a transformation and something new suddenly becomes possible? What else was hidden in the block of marble before the horse’s head emerged?

Observation is the only active thing we can do – the only activity not engaged in the mere transformation of matter into some other form. When engaging with Brown & Brí’s process of enquiry, the idea starts to emerge that many artworks ultimately fail the methodologies that produce them, by instrumentalising them. If there is a wilful contrariness to all this, it’s not simply a desire to defer endlessly the point at which one produces some epitomisation of one’s work, but rather a genuine desire that the spectator/listener/reader/interlocutor should inhabit the moment before the transformation, engage with the method more fully. Brown & Brí are attempting to intuit a method for artistic enquiry, by improvising and inhabiting and performing it, starting from the first assumptions each time they come together again, positioning themselves at the edges of practices that continue to inadequately interrogate their own prior conceptions.

Hold that thought.

Daniel Jewesbury is an artist and writer.
This is a longer version of a text that was commissioned about our practice for the publication Aggregate 2022 as part of the Freelands Artist Programme 2021.

Rachel Brown and Brighdin Farren began working collaboratively in 2009 after they had both been directors at Catalyst Arts in Belfast. Rachel studied Photography (BA) and works as Programmer and Co-ordinator at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, and Brighdin studied Sculpture (BA) and Contemporary Dance (MA) and works as Senior Creative Producer in urban design and development at Belfast City Council.