As art world accolades go, the Turner Prize has never been one to follow a set regiment. It played a role in propelling Damien Hirst to success in 1995 for example – the winner created his bisected cow preserved in formaldehyde, entitled Mother and Child Divided, with the prize money – while in 2002 the UK culture minister famously dismissed it as “conceptual bullshit,” and quickly gained the support of Prince Charles in the process. The Turner Prize’s prestige both depends upon, and perpetuates, controversy.
All the same, when the nominees were shortlisted in the spring of 2015, with multidisciplinary collective Assemble among them, the art and design industries gasped in simultaneity. The first design practice to be recognised by the award in its 30-year-long run, it marked a benchmark moment for the design world, which had long been excluded from the art industry’s grandeur.
Assemble however, could not be more appropriately matched to the prestigious award, which is designated to celebrate a British artist under the age of 50 for an outstanding presentation of their work in the 12 months prior. Based in east London, the collective, which was formed five years ago and currently stands at 18 members, is principally focused on what it describes as “the typical disconnection between the public and the process by which places are made.” It works across the boundaries of art, design and architecture to help build communities and environments; its projects are fiercely collaborative, involving local residents in the regeneration of suburban locales through group activities.
Take the Granby Four Streets for example – an area in Toxteth outside Liverpool, which has been one of the most deprived in the UK for several decades. It was first thrown into dereliction by plans for redevelopment, which saw the council move hundreds of tenants out of the surrounding houses to begin a demolition which never came. As the area fell into disrepair, it was further written off by the Toxteth riots in 1981. Even so, a small and determined group of local residents fought tooth and nail to regenerate the remaining Four Streets. Which is when Assemble got on board.
The collective has worked with neighbouring institutions to develop “a sustainable and incremental vision for the area,” it explains, building on the work already done, and developing plans for further refurbishment of housing and public spaces. “The approach is characterised by celebrating the value of the area’s architectural and cultural heritage,” Assemble explains, “supporting public involvement and partnership working, offering local training and employment opportunities, and nurturing the resourcefulness and DIY spirit that defines the Four Streets.”
The newest chapter in Assemble’s ongoing work in Toxteth takes the form of the Granby Workshop, a social enterprise which creates handmade objects to replace those stripped from homes by the council in its routine shelling of a house before boarding it up for demolition. “The workshop sells a range of home products that are made in Granby,” Lewis from the collective explains. “Products are made using processes which embrace chance and improvisation so that each is unique, developing in the hands of the maker.” The homely, handmade nature of these objects is crucial; they range from fireplaces and tables made from Granby Rock, a reconstituted construction waste composed of brick, slate and stone, to ‘fired furniture’, which is carefully crafted from burned timber. Each piece is forged out of Granby’s complex history.
With the help of attention directed towards the collective as a result of the Turner Prize shortlist, from which the winners will be announced in November, these products are now being made available to a global audience. “People can pre-order our first edition products now,” Lewis explains, “and help us launch the workshop and support the ongoing rebuilding of the area”. It’s not a bisected cow, but Assemble’s community-focused, collaborative and participatory practice might be the most controversial moment the Turner Prize has had yet.