I AM AN ARCHIVE: Westminster Walk, November 2008. Barbara Steveni taking with Brian Haw, Peace Campaigner in Parliament Square. Photo by John Mallinson. Courtesy Barbara Steveni. Image not licensed for reuse.

Barbara Steveni and the creation of the Artist Placement Group

Victoria Lane celebrates Barbara Steveni’s vision as an artist and co-founder of Artist Placement Group.

Barbara Steveni is a well-kept secret in the art world because she largely operates outside it. The pioneer sound artist Z’EV said that she is ‘the most important artist nobody’s heard of’.1 She has never had a gallery, is often seen in the shadow of her artist husband, John Latham (1921-2006), and is not represented in public art collections. However, her conceptual practice radically redefined the position of the artist in society through her idea of the Artist Placement Group (APG). The APG’s purpose was to generate change in organisations of all kinds through the medium of art.

The National Life Stories oral history project Artists’ Lives provides a crucial space to reappraise Barbara’s pioneering work. She has been interviewed twice for the project, by Melanie Roberts in 1998 and currently by myself. The recordings reveal how her innovative approach helped change perceptions of the role of the artist and was a precursor to the public art programmes and artist-in-residence schemes we know now. The recordings chart the story of her development from a traditional fine artist to one who expanded the possibilities of what art could be, as part of a wider underground cultural shift.

Barbara Steveni and John Latham

Whilst training at Chelsea School of Art (1948-1951), where she won the Christopher Head Scholarship for Drawing, Barbara met and eloped with John Latham. John had served in the Second World War, was older, and had already started showing work in galleries. They were later involved with an intellectual circle of artists, and their house in Portland Road, London, became a hub of the 1960s underground, counterculture scene. Many key figures stayed or visited including the writer, Alexander Trocchi, the psychiatrist, R D Laing, and members of the experimental art movement, Fluxus. Art was moving from being an object in a gallery to embracing ephemeral Events or Happenings, (later known as Performance Art), which might occur beyond the gallery.

The Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) took place in London, from 9-11 September 1966. It was organised by artists and activists, Gustav Metzger and John Sharkey, both associates of Barbara and John. DIAS was an international event that gathered together key representatives of the counterculture movement from the fields of art, poetry and science. The theme was destruction as a social and aesthetic phenomenon. Yoko Ono participated, staying with the Lathams, and Barbara worked with her on several performances including Shadow Piece and Cut Piece.2 Barbara moved from drawing and painting into making assemblages, which are works of art made by grouping together found objects. She then started to create her own events using the whole of the city as her context. She, John and others organised happenings as the informal ‘Nodnol Lives’ group (in which Nodnol is London backwards). Here Barbara recounts the spontaneity of one of her events at Paddington Station, around 1965, made with Phil Cohen, also known as Dr. John, a writer and activist.3

The Artist Placement Group

Against this backdrop of the cultural scene and happenings, Barbara had the idea for the Artist Placement Group (APG). Not only could art exist outside the context of the gallery, her plan took artists into powerful organisations that govern society, as she describes in this extract.

Barbara negotiated placements for artists paid for by the host organisation. Treated on equal terms with other employees, artists had an ‘open brief’ to interpret the placement as they chose, with no set outcomes. After a three-month feasibility study the artist made proposals for how they would like to work with the organisation in a placement that would last at least a year. Artists offered their perceptions and involvement with the industry or government department through a contractual agreement.

Barbara and John co-founded the APG in 1966 with other artists including Jeffrey Shaw, Stuart Brisley, David Hall and Barry Flanagan. They worked together to plan how the APG would operate as a communal artists’ venture. Their meetings were known as the ‘Think Tank’. Barbara recalls the distinctive approach of APG in the following extract.

Whilst she was teaching at St. Martin’s School of Art, Frank Martin, who was Head of Sculpture, suggested Barbara ask Sir Robert Adeane for support. Adeane was principally a businessman and chair of many companies but also an art collector, former Trustee and first chairman of the Friends of the Tate Gallery. He therefore neatly straddled the worlds of both art and business that Barbara sought to connect through the APG. He and other influential figures went on to become Trustees of the APG. They gave Barbara the backing and the route forward to engage industries, such as British Steel, British Rail, Esso and ICI, as she recounts in this extract.

Barbara Steveni’s identity and role within the Artist Placement Group

Barbara was the motivating force that initiated, negotiated and coordinated the placements, exhibitions, discussions and symposiums of APG. She speaks about her role as a continuous performance:

…which I later came to see as part of my assemblage, that I was putting together these other parts…now taking place in the context of the organisations of society, and I was being instrumental in bringing them about…4

Her pivotal role within the development of APG has generally been obscured by the better-known work of John Latham and the theoretical approach he brought to the group, combined with the domination of the male artists in APG. Barbara was initially referred to as the ‘Secretary’ of APG and retrospectively, the more appropriate title ‘Coordinator’ was applied to her position. However, her identity and role is largely anonymised behind the organisational name. At the time of the formation of the APG, even she didn’t recognise what she was doing as the actions of an artist. Barbara recalls how she was defined more by her association with John, his work, and the social expectations of women in the 1960s.

Organisation + Imagination

In 1989, APG changed its name to Organisation + Imagination, or O+I. This was because the Arts Council had taken the idea of artists’ placements without the rigorous conceptual basis of the APG’s own approach. APG not only did not want to be confused with watered-down placements but also had history with the Arts Council. The Arts Council, which had earlier been supportive, withdrew funding in 1972, as it believed APG’s activities were ‘more concerned with social engineering than straight art’.5 O+I continued to work as an independent international artist network, consultancy and research organisation.

O+I finalised the deposit of the APG archives at Tate in 2005, and wound up its activity in 2008. Much of the legacy that Barbara created is bound up with archival documents rather than art works. Her ephemeral actions exist as archival traces. Since 2000, she has worked on personal projects that reactivate the archives of APG and O+I. This includes walks, performances and symposia under the project heading I AM AN ARCHIVE (2002-2015). She has also made a series of films with women who played a significant part in her life called CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN OURSELVES (2013-2017).

The Artists’ Lives interviews demonstrate Barbara’s vital role in the creation and development of APG as ‘conceptual engineering’6 and a radical social experiment. The continuing relevance of her ideas are present in the latest iteration of APG/O+I, initiated in 2016 by Barbara, Neal White, Tina O’Connell, Gareth Bell-Jones and Marsha Bradfield. Renamed the Incidental Unit, it retains the fundamental concepts and processes of APG in order to generate socially engaged art practice.

[1] Z’EV (1951-2017) was Barbara Steveni’s partner from the late 1980s. She separated from John Latham in 1985 but continued to work with him on their art throughout his life. Conversation between Barbara Steveni and Victoria Lane, 19 January 2019.

[2] Barbara and John’s son, Noa Latham, also worked with Ono on a performance called ‘Steam Piece’ during DIAS.

[3] R D Laing had asked the Lathams if two of his patients could live with them during this period. Phil Cohen was one and the other was the video artist Elsa Stansfield.

[4] Barbara Steveni, National Life Story Collection: Artists’ Lives. Interview with Melanie Roberts, 1998. Ref: C466/80/06

[5] Letter to Barbara Steveni from The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1972, in Barbara Steveni’s Archive.

[6] This is how Barbara defined APG’s activities. Barbara Steveni, National Life Story Collection: Artists’ Lives. Interview with Victoria Lane, 2018. Ref: C466/392/06

Related oral history recordings

Follow the links below to listen to the life story recordings of individuals mentioned in this essay:

Barbara SteveniJohn Latham, Stuart Brisley

Many more life story recordings from Artists' Lives and other projects are available on British Library Sounds.

Selected extracts from the exhibition Artists' Lives: Speaking of the Kasmin Gallery (Tate Britain 2016-2018) are also available on British Library Sounds in Curator's Choice.

  • Victoria Lane
  • Victoria Lane is an archivist. She is the Library & Archive Manager at Shakespeare’s Globe and consultant for the Art Archives Consultancy with Judy Vaknin. Prior to this she was Archivist at the Henry Moore Institute and Archive Curator at Tate. She is the co-editor of ‘All This Stuff: Archiving the Artist’ (2013).