The idea came to them in June. The Turner prize nominees had arrived in Margate to visit the Turner Contemporary. The four artists – Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Oscar Murillo, Tai Shani – had never met before and, as they talked in a white-walled meeting room facing the North Sea, they began to discuss proposing themselves to the judges as a collective. Their idea was, in other words, that there should be no single winner of this year’s Turner prize. It was a plan for a hijack – albeit, says Cammock, “a considered hijack”.
“I don’t remember who said it out loud first,” says Shani, whose sensuous, voluptuous work for the prize’s exhibition combines performance, text and installation to imagine a post-patriarchal world. “We’d all thought about it. For me, it felt like being nominated was a huge recognition. I was really happy with that. When someone suggested it, we were very cohesive immediately.”
Murillo – who is showing an unsettling installation of papier-mache figures staring out to sea, their view all but blocked by a dark curtain – says: “If any of us had individually won, I would have felt I was betraying my own work and ideas – if we are indeed really talking about solidarity.”
Abu Hamdan quickly understood that although his fellow shortlisted artists use very different aesthetic tools from him, they have much in common – an interest in power and agency, exclusion and oppression. “If anyone gets what we do as individual artists, they will get why this decision had to be made,” he says. His films in the show arise from a project to collect aural memories from survivors of the infamous Saydnaya prison in Syria – memories that in practical terms helped researchers reconstruct the conditions of incarceration but also, in their distortions and metaphorical layerings, allowed the artist to mine a deeper, poetic understanding of these horrific experiences.
“There was something about the way we work and why we work that resonated,” remembers Cammock, who is showing a film about women’s resistance and protest in Derry during the Troubles. “We started to talk about the toxic political environment and it felt like it was a moment we could start doing something about that, between us – however that worked or manifested.”
As their eventual joint statement puts it, they believed that pitting themselves against each other “would undermine our individual artistic efforts to show a world entangled. The issues we each deal with are as inseparable as climate chaos is from capitalism.” Proposing themselves as a collective, as an act of resistance, would be a symbolic gesture. Symbolism is, of course, the great tool of the artist – and the Turner prize, for the British artist, is the most prominent platform from which to deploy it.
This coup was, says Shani, “actually quite a bureaucratic process. We didn’t have very high hopes of it going through. This idea of Mutiny on the Bounty – that wasn’t quite how it panned out.”
They made a proposal to Tate Britain, which runs the prize, in the summer and it wound its way up to the trustees before being offered to the jurors as an option. They weren’t at all sure it would be accepted. The jurors met as usual on Tuesday, the day of the announcement, and were free to ignore what the artists had suggested – though realistically, there wasn’t much moral wriggle-room. So they accepted and the artists will split the prize money equally, £10,000 each.
At the prize ceremony, in Margate’s art deco Dreamland amusement park, Cammock read the full statement – the most political Turner prize speech in years, a sustained attack on the Conservatives’ politics of austerity and exclusion. To slam the point home, Shani was sporting an enormous pendant bearing the slogan: “TORIES OUT.” She talked of an increasingly narrow idea of “Britishness” offered by the right. As Abu Hamdan put it the morning after: “There’s a disconnect between being accepted as a British artist culturally – and being put on the highest platform of what it means to be a British artist – and the ‘hostile environment’.”
This feels personal to all of them. Abu Hamdan has a British passport but lives in Beirut partly because of the difficulties of settling his Lebanese wife in Britain. Murillo, who was born in Colombia, once flushed his British passport down an aeroplane loo in a moment of rebellion against the privilege the document confers. Shani, who is Jewish, talks about how she feels “antisemitism has been manipulated by the right. There’s a feeling that you are being instrumentalised and that people are speaking on behalf of your identity in the name of protecting you.” Cammock feels that the current climate of division and racism is “a resurgence of something toxically dangerous, like a wave that keeps rising”.
Should artists be getting into this kind of territory? Well, why not? All art is political. But the other point these artists press home is that they also live in the real world. Their work is not magically disconnected from their lives and opinions, and the society in which they live. “I’ve been vocal about my financial precarity,” says Shani, who has posted on social media about how she’s feared having to give up working as an artist because of the difficulty of making ends meet. “People ask me,” chips in Cammock, “about how the arts can become more inclusive spaces for people who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds. But art isn’t isolated from society. If people are excluded from other things, they will also be excluded from the arts.”
Shani continues: “If people aren’t paid properly in the arts then people can’t be artists.” Cammock: “And if it’s being taken out of state education and becomes something for privileged private schools.” Shani: “Then there’s higher education, tuition fees. Everything is related. We are part of society.”
You could reasonably ask: if the artists had been so eager to disrupt the rules of the Turner prize, why did they allow their nominations to go forward in the first place? They had the choice and many – mostly famously Sarah Lucas – have turned down the chance over the years. The artists all say they are honoured to have been shortlisted, and their decision was contingent on the synergies between them – another combination, in another year, and it wouldn’t have happened.
But also, points out Cammock, this isn’t an isolated incident. Look at the history of sport. “There have been many moments when people have taken a stand – moments where people have seen the interconnectedness between things and have made a decision. They run across the line together. They do the black power salute.” Abu Hamdan pitches in: “And there’s Kaepernick” – referring to the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took the knee during The Star-Spangled Banner as a protest against racism. “We are not in an isolated bubble,” says Cammock. “We are people too.”
We are in a moment when the traditional cultural authority of the arts prize – with its single “genius” winner – is being challenged. More and more victors of prizes (Helen Marten, for example, who won the Turner in 2016) are choosing to share out the prize money with their fellow nominees. In the case of the Booker prize this year, it was the judges who refused to observe the rules, presenting Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood as joint winners in defiance of the organisers.
Shani sees this as part of a wider shift – a mood of unpicking authority, of seeing through the accepted matrices of power and questioning them. It is possible that the world is moving beyond the monolithic, winner-takes-all prize – increasingly people are questioning the act that holds up one artist as the best. In the present case, it’s hard not to fall for the sincerity of these four artists who, without cynicism, have expressed their beliefs and hopes through the means at their disposal.
“What did Audre Lorde say?” says Cammock, in reference to the American poet and activist. “‘Your silence will not protect you.’ This is a moment of saying no to silence.”
• The Turner prize exhibition is at Turner Contemporary, Margate, until 12 January.