LONDON — When the London Institute of Contemporary Arts closed its doors on March 16, 2020, in response to the threat posed by COVID-19, Cameron Rowland’s exhibition had almost a month left before its official end date. While the show, which will resume once the ICA reopens, has remained locked away in a state of suspended animation, the outside world has been unimaginably transformed.
After normal routines were abruptly upended, it quickly became clear that the economic consequences of the shutdowns, and the virus itself, were having a vastly disproportionate impact on minority communities in the United States and elsewhere. Then, at a moment when collective activity seemed like a distant memory, the horrifying video of George Floyd’s death, his breath crushed out of him for 8:46 minutes by Minneapolis police, brought people out into the streets in a sustained series of protests against systemic racism. During the course of the demonstrations, Confederate monuments were pulled from their pedestals, followed by monuments to slave traders, colonialists, and racists around the world. How will it be possible, one might ask, for an exhibition that began its run under such different circumstances to simply pick up where it left off?
And yet, the issues raised by Cameron Rowland’s 3 & 4 Will. IV c.73 remain remarkably timely. The title refers to the 1833 act abolishing slavery throughout the British Colonies. But as Rowland recounts in the essay text and extended captions that are integral to this deceptively austere exhibition, this act was accompanied by provisions to compensate those who were deprived of the “services” of their human property, thus preserving their amassed affluence and power.
As our current system of global trade began grinding to a halt, it was not difficult to find parallels in talk about bailouts for corporations suddenly impacted by their inability to continue extracting maximum shareholder value from the labor of billions working for minimal compensation, with no safety net.
Through texts and objects, Rowland illuminates key moments in the history of slavery. They emphasize how deeply this systematic dehumanization was interwoven with the founding of commercial structures and fortunes that continue to define modern life. This theme is announced at the beginning of the exhibition, with the juxtaposition of a 1644 gold two-guinea piece on the wall and, on the floor, a pile of 18th-century brass mantillas and glass beads.
Both the mantillas and beads were used to buy slaves in Africa, and were part of a larger economy of goods and currency produced to trade for slaves that was known as “pacotille,” or “rubbish.” The history around the gold coin includes the Royal African Company, established in the 17th century under King Charles II to provide revenue for the monarchy from gold extracted from Gambia (minted into coins with a distinct elephant mark that became known as guineas), which quickly expanded its purview to include a central role in the transatlantic slave trade.
From the end wall of the same gallery, an 18th-century mahogany writing box juts out like a minimalist sculpture. The box represents both the foundational role of systems of credit supported by written documents in the development of modern trade, and the role of slave labor in the importation of mahogany from Jamaica, Barbados, and Honduras. Two framed pieces of paper nearby document Rowland’s recent one-year rental of a mooring in Liverpool, on the site of the former Rathbone and Sons warehouse, for the purpose of taking the mooring site out of service.
The gesture is part of an investigation of the firm’s role in the 18th century as a major mahogany importer and its current incarnation as Rathbone Brothers Plc., a wealth management company. Along the way, Rowland recounts the equally central role of Rathbone and Sons as importers of cotton produced by US slave labor — which, paradoxically, was linked to support for British abolitionist campaigns in a strategic maneuver against trade monopolies enjoyed by West Indian plantation owners.
Upstairs, objects and supporting documents draw connections between the highly organized systems of confinement and punishment developed by the Royal African Company to control humans held in Africa in preparation for transatlantic passage and contemporary systems of incarceration in the US, including the use of electronic monitoring devices and the frequent requirement that individuals on probation pay fees for their provisional freedom.
The interweaving of past and present takes a different twist in a wall of mortgage contracts concerning areas of the ICA building itself. The somewhat eccentric gallery spaces carved out within the Carlton House Terrace building that the ICA leases from the Crown are an inescapable part of the experience of any exhibition in that setting, and Rowland has utilized this context in unexpected ways.
The artist convinced the ICA to take out a mortgage on the building’s mahogany doors and staircase handrail; an entity directed by Rowland, Encumbrance Incorporated, lent the ICA a total of £5,000 through five on-demand loans at a rate of 10% per year that are secured by the architectural features.
“In addition to being fixtures of the building,” curator Richard Birkett explained in an email, these pieces of mahogany “are now also elements of artworks” and, as such, they “serve two different functions with competing interests, one of which operates under the authority of the ICA, independently of the Crown Estate as lessor.” By leaving the loan in place, the maneuver is designed to create an encumbrance on any future tenant.
The mortgages are in keeping with Rowland’s overall attention to property relations, including their equally focused engagement with art-world systems of exchange through the use of rental agreements, rather than outright sales, for some of their works, which constitute a much more stringent limitation on property rights than the often referenced but rarely deployed 1971 Siegelaub-Projansky agreement.
The logistics associated with Rowland’s rental contracts have been the subject of a fair amount of attention. Yet prior to writing this text I was unaware of Rowland’s highly detailed permission form for image use, mainly oriented to requiring the extended text associated with each work be reprinted in full as image captions, but also reserving the right to check articles for their factual content; forbidding the publication of any other text referring to Rowland in the same publication; and asserting Rowland’s intellectual property rights in both work and text. (Additional installation views not released for inclusion with the present discussion can, however, be found at C&.)It was equally interesting to discover, via correspondence with Maxwell Graham, that Essex Street (Rowland’s gallery), makes regular use of the Siegelaub-Projansky contract for a number of gallery artists.
Most critics and art historians are painfully aware of the difficulties associated with requests for images, ranging from high fees (not the case here) to vetting content, and this is a point where advocacy for artists’ rights can sharply conflict with the doctrine of fair use, which opens space for criticism and commentary via this crucial exception to blanket copyright control.
Other than the framed contracts, most of the material on exhibit consists of found objects that would not be subject to copyright even if they weren’t centuries old. I don’t see anything that should prevent me from illustrating this article with photographs I took of the exhibition, as my own counterpoint to the dialogue around property rights that Rowland has initiated.
But I also recognize that I’ve walked past those mahogany doors on a number of other occasions, without a second thought, so it is only Rowland’s version of the readymade gesture, elaborated through lengthy captions, that has rendered them interesting. I was therefore willing to extend my engagement with Rowland’s multilayered and intensely thought-provoking exhibition to include requests for official images of the objects claimed by Rowland as works of art. To do otherwise would be to miss the point.
Cameron Rowland: 3 & 4 Will. IV c.73 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (The Mall, St. James’s, London, England) is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please check the ICA website for announcements regarding its reopening. The exhibition is curated by Richard Birkett.