Jo Spence (1934–1992) emerged as a key figure in the mid 1970s
from the British photographic left, crucial in debates on photography and
the critique of representation. Her work engaged with a range of
photographic genres, from documentary to photo therapy, and responded to
the prioritisation from the late 1970s onwards of lens-based media in
Rough edged, recycled, personal—in
essence positively amateur, Spence’s work stands in direct
opposition to numerous artistic givens. She proposed process over object,
collaboration and collectivity over heroic authorship and, above all,
generosity (to self and other) over the pursuit of any singular creative
ambition. While adroit with its arguments, she swerved the academic
theorisation of photography, preferring an experimental and biographical
exploration of ideas. This results in a richly didactic yet highly
idiosyncratic output, one that is playful, silly even at times, while also
being capable of delivering images of excoriating intensity.
Spence held the firm belief that photography has an empowering capacity
when applied to complex issues of class, power, gender, health, and body.
From this perspective she rallied against all forms of hegemony, dominance,
and control. Her critical concerns, be they with the idea of naturalism in
the documentary image or National Health Service protocol, became the
primary productive principal for her output, drawing her into
action—variably as an artist, writer, activist, community leader,
adult educator, and patient.
While a prevailing wind of cultural
pessimism might propose Spence’s work as specifically periodic, to
those who know it, and to those who—through this
exhibition—will come to know it, it is clear that she has much to
offer contemporary audiences. Her work is best described as a sort of
energetic, one that is constantly agitating, asking the wrong questions,
and pushing against things. It is no wonder that Spence was never quite at
ease with the title ‘artist.’ Instead she had a
preference—one linked both to the behavioural condition of the
photographer, but also to the nature of her critical enterprise in
general—that of ‘cultural sniper.’
twentieth anniversary of her death, Jo Spence Work (Part I and Part
II) offers an important opportunity to experience a significant
presentation of the photographer’s practice first hand. In doing so,
we hope the exhibition allows for a recognition of the relevance of her
work and working methods, both of which remain as sharply radical and
transformative today as they were over two decades ago.
exhibition is chronologically split across the two sites: SPACE’s
presentation will focus on Spence’s work from the late 1960s to the
early 1980s and will explore the explicitly social and political dimensions
of her early solo and collaborative work. Studio Voltaire will present
later works from the early 1980s up to the artist’s death in 1992.
The latter works broadly deal with issues of health, therapy,
self-empowerment, and mortality.
In recent years, her practice
has received attention with retrospectives of Spence’s work at MACBA,
Barcelona (2005) and Camera Austria, Graz (2006), and her inclusion in
Documenta 12 (2007). Her work is represented in international public
collections including MACBA, Barcelona; GOMA, Glasgow; Ryerson Image
Centre, Canada; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid and
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
As an integral part of the
project, Studio Voltaire has launched NOT OUR
CLASS. This new long-term programme of education and
participatory projects takes the work of Jo Spence as a starting point for
investigating the legacy and potentials of her work in relation to
contemporary culture and life. Through a series of commissions,
offsite projects, workshops, public events, and reading groups situated
both within Studio Voltaire’s neighbourhood and contemporary art
discourse the programme will explore the new turn towards education and
participation within contemporary art practice. The programme will include
new commissions by artists Emma Hedditch, Marysia Lewandowska, and Rehana
Zaman, working with The Jo Spence Memorial Archive, Lambeth Women’s
Project, Intoart, King’s College Hospital, and Body & Soul.
The exhibition is made in partnership with Terry Dennett/The
Jo Spence Memorial Archive.
Supported by the Stanley Thomas Johnson
Foundation and The Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts.
assistance from Richard Saltoun, who represents the Estate of Jo Spence.
NOT OUR CLASS, Studio Voltaire’s associated Education and
Participation Programme, is supported by Bloomberg and by the National
Lottery through Arts Council England.
Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, Revisualization, From Remodelling
Photo History, 1982. © Jo Spence Memorial Archive