Turner Prize winners Assemble: ‘Art is inherently political...and so are we’

A visitor views an exhibit by the Turner Prize 2015 winning Assemble collective at Tramway in Glasgo

A visitor views an exhibit by the Turner Prize 2015 winning Assemble collective at Tramway in Glasgow. Picture: PA/Andrew Milligan - Credit: PA WIRE

Hampstead-raised Cambridge graduate Anthony Meacock has won the Turner Prize as part of the social collective Assemble. He tells Alex Bellotti why they don’t mind the critics’ bickering about their artistic merit.

Turner Prize winner Assemble after they collected their award at the Tramway arts venue in Glasgow.

Turner Prize winner Assemble after they collected their award at the Tramway arts venue in Glasgow. Picture: David Cheskin/PA - Credit: PA WIRE

So the Turner Prize has done it again. When Assemble were announced last week as the winners of Britain’s most controversial art award, the same old questions emerged. Is this art? What does the Turner Prize stand for? Perhaps, most pertinently, should we even care?

Cynicism aside, though, the most heart-warming aspect of this year’s story is that Assemble clearly do care. Not necessarily about the Turner Prize, per se; rather about how creativity can be harnessed to not just gain a Charles Saatchi commission, but actually transform communities at the most visceral level.

The collective’s winning entry, a re-staged interior from one of the many houses they have rebuilt in Liverpool’s run-down Granby Four Streets estate, prompted much controversy about whether it is art or architecture. Yet the project is undeniably full of many ‘artistic’ hallmarks – design, politics, historical and social commentary – and its success hints at an increasing desire for art to get away from private galleries and out to the masses.

“Art is inherently political and the stuff we’re doing is inherently political,” says Anthony Meacock, who grew up in Hampstead before becoming a founding member of the 18-strong group. “What we want people to take from this is the inspiration of working with the people there. We met with residents who have been there for 20 years, and it was an opportunity to show how considered endeavour with amazing momentum can achieve a lot.”

Assemble are a hard beast to define, mostly because they avoid labels at all cost. The majority of their membership – including 29-year-old Meacock – met at Cambridge University while studying architecture. After graduating, a number of them worked for architectural practices, but at the height of recession, business was tough.

To regain their sense of vocation, in 2010 they grouped together to build a temporary cinema in an abandoned petrol station in Clerkenwell. “We really emerged out of that project, with a desire to build and with the collective idea that cities should be public, space should be public and we should give back.”

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Since then, the group have tackled everything from temporary theatres to town squares. Their largest project, Granby Four Streets, came about in early 2013 following investment from Steinbeck Studios which allowed them to work with the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust, who have battled to save the houses from government demolition since the Toxteth riots in 1981.

Refurbishing 10 houses – which involved everything from plumbing to redecorating the house using reclaimed materials from the area – Assemble’s brief depended on the taste of each resident, who were keen to avoid the identikit pre-fab look of usual redevelopments.

Even after their work attracted the attention of Turner judge Alistair Hudson, however, they didn’t expect to make the shortlist.

“The criteria are very vague,” admits Meacock, a former King Alfred School pupil. “You don’t know what point they want to make. It’s very hard to predict.”

Even the critics don’t seem sure. The polarised reactions of the Guardian – “Should it win the Turner Prize? Perhaps it should” – and The Telegraph – “Shouldn’t even be here” – hints at the project’s political values, but the question remains: can a group of architects really make ‘art’?

“We’ve worked a lot within arts practices, but we’ve never positioned ourselves as part of that world. In some ways it’s very interesting as it’s forced us to reconsider what our practice is and realise that a lot of what we do is inherently artistic.

“The question of what hat we wear when we’re working seems slightly irrelevant to us. We’ve intentionally allowed it to be vague, the work should be judged on its own merit and whether that’s being read as art or as architecture, the work has a range of different factors, scales and camps – some of them are more explicitly artistic than others.”

The jury remains out, but then Assemble are a very democratic entity. Each project they embark on is the result of conversations had down the pub or in the studio; their future is therefore hard to predict without a clear “manifesto”.

Yet wherever they go next, perhaps their biggest concern is public image. It was “slightly odd”, notes Meacock, to find the press so intrigued that Assemble consulted Granby Street residents before accepting the Turner nomination, but perhaps this was because it hinted at underlying political landmines. This is, after all a group of middle class Londoners picking up their tools and venturing up to impoverished areas of Liverpool – stick your best ‘Big Society’ and ‘Northern Powerhouse’ gags here.

“I think we have to be conscious of being used politically,” he adds. “There’s an amazing freedom in giving power to communities, but what does that actually mean? There’s a lot of policies that talk about doing that, but when you look at what they’re actually doing, it’s just putting the debts and problems of a community out of the hands of government.

“We have to be careful that we don’t get used to justify policies and things that we don’t think are actually helpful.”

So they won’t be accepting any invitations to Downing Street, Cool Britainnia-style?

“It’s hard to say!” laughs Meacock modestly. “I don’t think we’re quite on that horizon yet!”