|This account begins at what was then called 'Chelsea College of Art and Design,' when it was still located on Manresa Road, SW3. (A constituent of The University of the Arts London [and The London Institute before it], the College would move to Millbank in 2005 but retain its name, which had referenced 'Chelsea' neighbourhood since 1908). BA students Ian Drysdale, Trevor Giles, Tom Neill, Wei-Ho Ng and Darrel Stadlen worked with their tutor Neil Cummings to set up chelseawiki.org as a platform for showcasing the practices of staff and students side-by-side. It would become a repository for all kinds of Chelsea-based activity, including the that which paved the way for Critical Practice Research Cluster. Sadly, this archive no longer survives. Hosted on a server owned by the University of the Arts London, cheleawiki.org disappeared one day in circa 2011. The official story: all this content was lost due to an IT meltdown; the unofficial story: an open access platform that presented the work of staff and student on par no longer aligned with the institution's perceptions and policies pertaining to copyright.
April 2004: With their BA dissertations done and dusted, soon-to-be graduates Ian Drysdale, Trevor Giles, Tom Neill, Wei-Ho Ng and Darrel Stadlen began to anticipate life after graduation. They shared a commitment to experimenting with an Open Source ethos, migrating it from computer programming to other kinds of creative practice, namely fine arts. As explained in a retrospective account given in 2008 by Ian and Robin, the latter another member of what would become Critical Practice, 'Darrel_Ian_Tom_Trevor_Wei-Ho (DITTW), wrote a set of Founding Principles describing what was commonly held to be important in an "open" approach to art practice.' (CP Issue 2)
That same month DITTW and Neil approached Tate Britain with the idea of a conference using FLOSS (Free/Libre Open Source Software), copyleft licensing and the Free Culture movement as starting points. This tapped growing interest amongst staff at Chelsea (including future CP-member Corrado Morgana) and others in collaborative ways of working that were also reflexive. In addition to working in scenes, ecologies, organisations and institutions of art, these practices would work on then. This practice-based approach to institutional critique should be understood against the backdrop of widespread changes. On the one hand, free culture motored by a knowledge exchange was exploding through P2P platforms like Firefox and Wikipedia; on the other, fears prompted by 9/11'made what the US termed 'homeland security' a global concern. Real and virtual borders were variously fortified and transgressed.
At the same time, DITTW + N were especially concerned with the ways in which, 'art institutions were, and still are, struggling with their relationship to these changes'. (CP Issue 2) On the one hand, 'They have the habit of nurturing apparent uniqueness within the cultural continuum' CP Issue 2); on the other, this was largely reactionary. As Neil's work on museum and other futures demonstrates, many organisations of art and culture are highly conservative. Ask them where they want to be in twenty years and they're liable to say, 'Where Tate is today'. There is growing concern about this proliferating homogenity.
On 14 May 2004 Neil appealed to Chelsea for £18,000 to support the conference, of which £10,000 was eventually forthcoming. This funding made possible a high-profile international event, while also nurturing collaboration amongst soon-to-be Chelsea alumni who were seeking structures and opportunities to continue working together while transitioning out of art school and into other areas in the art field. For DITTW, working together was a reaction against the atomising effects of art education, which tend to prioritise individuals. 'If collaboration took place, it was someone's responsibility to pick it apart; the examiner, student or tutor.' CP Issue 2) This seemed at odds with the growing culture of sharing. How to make institutions of art - art schools and museums among them - more relevant, e.g. more responsive to deep structural changes that marked life as simultaneously hyperconnected but also increasingly uncertain? How might collaborative ways of working productinvely extend these institutions?
29 June to 4 July 2004: Darrel, Ian, Tom, Trevor and Wei-Ho's degree show was, 'a fantastic affair, with a mess of ideas and activities encompassing social spaces with free internet access, gallery activities for families, children and college staff, a seminar, even an Open Congress meeting...'. (CP Issue 2) Collaborative authorship, transparent relationships, accountable spending and the general messiness and the rich yield of peer-to-peer production were all things they aimed to manifest in their work.