BANK, Fax-Bax (Cluster Bomb), 1998
Courtesy of BANK: Simon Bedwell, Milly Thompson + John Russell
If you think the exhibition is a bit pretentious you can tell me, but the room is echoey.
And what do you know? Oh, you went to art school. That’s quaint as hell. You don't like this totally white canvas? Learn to like it, moron, it’s metaphorical. Here institutions and artworld titans set the standards for taste and value. A one way flow from on high. Does it feel like you’re watching the emperor in his new clothes but you can’t decide whether his threads are real or fake? Do gallery handouts simply confirm that you haven't read enough Walter Benjamin?
Enter (20 years ago) BANKS’ Fax-baks. BANK is an artist collective whose members Simon Bedwell, Milly Thompson and John Russell took home, corrected and graded press releases from major galleries, meeting the hifalutin tone of the texts with bratty frankness. When I found out about this series of artworks I did a little dance. Their rubberstamp: The BANK Fax-Bak Service: Helping You Help Yourselves!
If they had a cartoon tv show, their intro would show them standing abreast; biker mice revving their scramblers, opaque comic smoke billowing behind them. What follows would be a montage of flying kicks.
In a press release of Zebedee Jones's new paintings in 1998, BANK wrote off a whole paragraph with the line “this is all basically meaningless." Later on the same page, “the accretion of this glutinous residue is a sign of both assurance and of uncertainty” elicited the comment, “Standard lazy press release/journalism. The work does two opposite things at once—yes. Of course it does.” 1/10. POW!
Hannah Starkey at Interim Art fares only marginally better. “This dream-like knitting together of an elaborate formal structure and explicit social Confrontation enacted merely through the fact that looking is a recurrent feature in the images of this irish-born artist” receives the clapback: “What this means is another collection of large colour photographs (out of focus)—same as everyone else is showing,” “Extremely bad use of grammar and punctuation mars an otherwise run-of-the-mill press release—reassuringly devoid of any ideas.” 1.5/10. BOOM!
None that I read scored higher than a four out of ten. Most were a nought point something. TAKE THAT! AND THAT!
There’s something gleefully adolescent in how the works are so well versed in the register of punitive school mistresses and so delighted at the prospect of turning the tables. Fax-bak’s style is snarky and comedic but it addresses a real issue of exclusionary language in the Art Industry - what BANK called “a sinister linguistic manifestation.” In the decades since Fax-Baks, American researchers found that this style of writing, which they termed International Art English (IAE), was divergent enough from spoken english as to be termed a separate dialect. (Don’t believe me?) It gets its cultural cache from poorly translated french Post Structuralist texts by the likes of Barthes, Baudrillard, and Deleuze.
The Fax-baks were a ‘service,’ not just to the institutions but to the viewing public. Their message was that we ought not defer unquestioningly to galleries. Everyone was thinking it, the Fax-Baks imply, we just said it. So maybe when "This doesn’t make any sense!?" slips from your lips and richoctes off the walls of the white cube, the gallerina will smile to herself and think: "Yep, sounds about right." You Bank’d em.