Getting a grip #6: Standard, ledger and transom with Dave Bennett

Scaffold sculpture, 29 minute audio conversation on headphones, performed text

This new work forms part of Getting a Grip, an ongoing series of works by Sam, in which he commissions tradespeople, as artists, asking only: What can we do with the materials of our trade if a space is created for us to think more openly about what we do? For this iteration he commissioned Dave Bennett from IAC Scaffolding to create a different kind of support structure within the Court Room at Toynbee Studios.

Often cursed for its ugliness, scaffolding is a temporary support structure that must be infallibly strong without damaging the environment around it. It provides a platform for others to take the stage, inviting teams of specialist workers to inhabit its gangways and like a second skin, protects and enables a pathway for movement and construction leading to the realisation of designs. Scaffolding enables architecture to happen.

The work also featured a commissioned text: A talk on Sam Curtis written by Mark Wilsher and read by Sam Curtis
Artist, critic and curator Mark Wilsher asked Sam to perform for him, putting him in the same position as the workers he commissions.






A talk on Sam Curtis written by Mark Wilsher and read by Sam Curtis

Many people think that talking about art somehow destroys it. I don’t share that belief, but I do worry sometimes that trying to say what’s good about something can end up narrowing the focus --- to such an extent that you miss the subtleties and nuances of the bigger picture.

So, when Sam asked me if I would write something about this project I tried to think of a way of approaching it that would be able to keep some of the complexities that make it interesting in the first place. I thought I would ask him to perform my writing rather than just putting it online. Speaking my words rather than his own. I wanted to put him in the same sort of position that he often asks his collaborators to step into.

Probably the key thing about tonight’s exhibition is the set of relationships that have made it possible. This impressive scaffolding sculpture was dreamt up and expertly constructed by Dave from IAC Scaffolding, who spends most of his working days putting up and taking down much larger and more functional scaffolding around buildings that are being worked on. Sam wanted to see what would emerge when you bring this technical knowhow into an art world context and give permission for just about anything to happen. He put his trust in Dave. And in return Dave had to trust that he was going to be taken seriously and treated with respect. I don’t know if Dave is here tonight because I am writing this a couple of weeks in advance, but I think he deserves a round of applause…

So the artwork really exists in the relationship that Sam and Dave have built up over the last couple of months. The physical object is just proof of that relationship. Proof of that trust.

As well as this very tangible and solid construction in front of us, the artwork also exists in the slight change of consciousness that took place in Dave’s mind; the difference between putting scaffolding together for a normal, practical purpose, and putting it together knowing that it is going to be looked at as an artwork. Thinking about it like that means that you treat the materials differently. You think again about how they are joined, how the decking sits, how the diagonal braces are angled. You start to see these everyday things in a whole new light.

It also makes you think differently about work; about your job and the things you do every day. It is a special kind of heightened self-consciousness. This is one job among many ordinary jobs that is likely to be remembered because it is just so different. And I would like to think that Dave will carry a bit of that self-consciousness on to his everyday work, feeling an infra-thin grain of difference whenever he sets up a standard or a base plate – thinking about the precise position of every coupler.

I’m not going to claim that a project like this can solve the problem of the alienation of labour in the twenty-first century, or that it has somehow transformed the lives of the people involved. But a lot of Sam’s work involves an intentional transformation of consciousness that turns something everyday into something special. Working as a fishmonger became an opportunity to perfect manual skills and bring an aesthetic consciousness to the assembling of the daily display.

In an era of short term or zero hours contracts, when human beings are increasingly being redefined as just units of labour within a gig economy that shows few signs of humanity, how we think of our daily work has more of an impact than ever before. If we are going to retain anything of the dignity of labour then we need to be able to conceptualise our activities to our own advantage. We all need to somehow turn our labour into art.

Tonight’s project and the others in this series pull apart the normal relationships between employer and employee, customer and product. They use the structure of the economy itself as their medium and material – by inserting a new relationship of trust where before there was only a straightforward financial transaction.

Like I said before, I am writing this text a few weeks before the exhibition. I wanted to put Sam in this slightly awkward self conscious position tonight, reading out a piece of writing about himself, because in order to do it he has to put himself entirely into my hands. I have a responsibility to him with the words I make him say. I need to consider his feelings in this position in a way that a line-manager never would.

Art often acts as a reminder of alternative ways of viewing the world, and Sam’s work tries to create these opportunities for real human relations within the commercial world that we must all navigate today. It’s a reminder that society consists of more than just commercial relationships. This recognition of a worker’s essential humanity is something that we should hope to both receive, and give - every day of our own working lives.

Thank you



Developed with support from the Artsadmin Artists’ Bursary Scheme. This scheme is supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation, Arts Council England, the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation and The Mercers’ Company.

Photography by Tom Carter

Thanks to: Dave Bennett, Nick Clark, Nikki Tomlinson, Mark Wilsher, Amy Bluett, Emily Bird, Nathanial Pitt and all at Artsadmin.