no submission

No Submission

In the distant past, the Whitechapel Gallery would host a yearly open entry exhibition for the East End community of artists. This was an enormously popular event, and for many was the highlight of the year; something like a publically-funded alternative to the West End mainstream-commercial Royal Academy Summer Show. It seemed that all the artists from the East End of London would turn up for the opening to meet with friends, check out the competition and gossip about enemies. In short, the Whitechapel Open was an institution where a few careers were launched and many careers confirmed.

Having launched ourselves into a resistant artworld in 1981 as Work from Common Knowledge (together with John Coleman) through a series of self-organised exhibitions in various overlooked spaces, we decided the following year it would be interesting to enter this open show as a group.

We carefully wrapped our work. John drove over from Camberwell and we delivered it to the gallery as one package, together with the entry fee of fifteen pounds – split three ways. Some days later, John received a letter thanking us for our interest, wishing us better luck next time, and giving us dates and times when we could collect the rejected work from the gallery. This we did, only to discover that it was obvious that our work had not even been considered for inclusion, as on close inspection it was clear that the package had not been opened.

The next day, we rang the Whitechapel to complain and spoke to an administrator who claimed that all the work entered had been viewed by the selection panel. We insisted that this was not the case with our work. The issue escalated until we eventually spoke with the deputy director of the gallery Mark Francis, who finally admitted that there was the possibility that our work had been overlooked in the selection process. He suggested that we return the work to the gallery for consideration, even though it was rather late as the show was already in the process of being installed.

Needless to say, we were outraged, and refused. Instead, we asked that a notice be displayed on the wall saying that “The Whitechapel Gallery selection committee apologises for having overlooked the entry of work by the group Work from Common Knowledge.” For many young struggling artists, being publicly rejected from the Whitechapel Open could be a devastating blow, however we went to the opening, only to find that the notice had been conveniently put on the wall behind the bar where we stood together drinking wine in front of our work.

A few days later we received a letter from Nicholas Serota, then the Director of the Whitechapel, apologising for the fact that ‘sometimes these things may happen’, and saying that he looked forward to visiting our studio in the near future to view our work and meet with us in person. We wrote back saying that we do not have a studio ….. we have an attitude.

Months later we were approached at an opening by Mark Francis. He noted that we had been “busy” and asked us if we were going to enter the Whitechapel Open again. Given our experience the previous year, we replied that we were not. He then told us he thought that we ought to be in the exhibition and that if we submitted our work it would be given “special attention.”

However, we had decided that we had no intention of ever going through the same process again. A few days after the deadline for entries has passed we received a phone call asking us to bring work to the gallery. This we did and Mark Francis showed us the cafeteria which he thought was a suitable space for us to show our collective work – which we did.

So, the first time we entered the Whitechapel Open exhibition our work was rejected without it having been seen. The following year our work was accepted … without it having been seen.


Different Planes (Above, On and Below the Surface) 1983

Front: Kay Roberts with Glyn Banks in the café
Back: Different Planes (Above, On and Below the Surface) 1983
Installation (detail) Whitechapel Open 1983



It was around about this time that we went into the offices of Studio International in Covent Garden for a meeting with the editor Michael Spens and to deliver our latest article which began “It’s getting hard these days to tell a radical from a conservative …” Acting on our conviction that “anyone can be an artist” and “everyone is a critic,” we had begun to write occasionally for the magazine.

He announced that we might be interested to attend a press event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. It was some kind of significant anniversary of the founding of the ICA and the legendary art critic and author of Ways of Seeing, John Berger, had been invited to make a rare public appearance.

We were keen to go and a couple of days later we walked up the stairs to the private reception rooms above the public gallery. Of course, like everyone else, we helped ourselves to free food and drink and stood around for a while, conscious of being conspicuously ignored by the legitimate cultural critics, as we always were in such situations.

We recall John Berger standing next to Sandy Nairne, then the director of the ICA, speaking for about half an hour about his involvement in the early ICA, and his vision of its role in promoting contemporary culture.

Then he abruptly changed the subject and began to talk about his current life in a farmhouse in a small village in rural France. He talked about the countryside, walking, and writing, and the regular visits to his local dentist.

It was then that we noticed that he had under his arm a large brown envelope. He went on to say that having mentioned to his dentist that he was an art critic, the dentist announced that he was himself an artist. This led to many conversations about art and resulted in the dentist inviting him to his studio to see his work.

Berger paused, and then looked across to the director saying “and in this envelope are photographs of his work.”

Handing it over to him, he continued “perhaps he could have an exhibition at the ICA.”

Then he left.


Work from Common Knowledge 1985

Page from Artists Book
Work from Common Knowledge 1985
Coleman, Banks and Vowles, Circle Press