Public Art (Now) Blogger’s Report: Katie J Anderson

@KatieJoAnd writes about Futurefarmers’ Boat Oven & participation with @situationsUK

Public Art Now

By a small bakery, tucked under the bridge of Temple Meads train station stood a boat from which smoke drifted into the afternoon sky. Around it, a small crowd was gathering.

Situations_Futurefarmers_©MaxMcClure (83) Futurefarmers fire up the boat oven outside Hart’s bakery in Bristol. Photo: Max McClure

Sometimes it is the little things that most draw our attention. In a city renowned for it’s relationship with public art, my journey to Hart’s Bakery had led me through the city centre and past various permanent works – including a giant mirror ball and the horn bridge – but I was on the search for something more subtle.

Amy Franceschini began Situation’s second Public Art (Now) Live Event by introducing us to The Flatbread Society, a project developing a public bakehouse and grain field on Oslo’s waterfront. She spoke of ancient grains, the heat of the bakehouse and the Vavilov Institute in Leningrad.* The…

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Time arts & culture put class back on their agendas?

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I’ve been tweeting a bit today about art, privilege, elitism, ‘leaders’, social practice, and more.  The great article about the dominance of privilege in the arts by Nick Cohen in The Guardian yesterday certainly spurred me on.  So did tweets by Emma Bearman and Mar Dixon.  I felt the train of discussion throughout the day developed around common threads.  Ideas about emancipation, democracy, paradigm shifts.  This post attempts to cobble together my responses into a semi-coherent stream of thoughts and sound bites that currently drive me.  Here goes:

 

I think of my practice as ‘space-making’ but never call it that.  Potential, play, not knowing.  People ‘do art’ by taking part.

 

We are grassroots and critical… not radical.  We see social practice as a process of deconstruction and reconstruction.

 

Potentially emancipatory, our work is not Jesus on shipping containers or gimmicky digging for fools gold.

 

We see social practice as dialogic.  We try to create potential spaces where something creative might happen.

 

We’re forced to align our outcomes and measures to those of funders when applying, then make sure we achieve them.

 

People (the public) don’t define outcomes or measures.  Policymakers do.  Elitist and hierarchical.  Outcomes and measures don’t matter to people.

 

Policymakers pop stoppers in their bell jars.  Tie little state-made labels on.  File them away.  Museum objects.  Boxes ticked.

 

Funders like their ‘leaders’ to conform to passed-down policy.  Orchestral, they conduct.  ‘New’: their instrumental composition.

 

Leaders.  Thought Leaders.  Cultural Leaders.  Command and control.  Undemocratic?

 

Missionary, mercenary, mobiliser.  Always suspect.  Power is pervasive.

 

Can leadership every be truly ‘democratic’?  Always elitist.  Never emancipatory.

 

Neoliberal leadership is always evangelical.  They need us to be born again.

 

Leadership of this sort is always for technocratic elites; never publics.

 

Always difficult to challenge. DIY or with others.  Self-organise?

 

Elitism is as endemic in the arts as it is elsewhere.  Time to put class back on the agenda?

 

These are my thoughts.  I’m not a leader.  Not an evangelist.  I see critical theory as offering old-new ways to think about culture, class, power, policy.  New utopias.  Social justice.  A much needed socio-political paradigm shift…

Comments always welcome!

‘Pilots to Practice’–reflections about an ArtWorks PHF participatory arts conference

Yesterday, 9th September 2014, I attended Pilots to Practice at BALTIC – a ArtWorks North East conference about participatory arts.  I presented a PechaKucha entitled above ground level: old as new, new as old – social practice in a post-industrial port (see my previous post below for the presentation).  I also wrote a review of an ArtWorks publication about research into participatory artists’ practice for the #culturalvalue initiative.  I was a bit critical in the review.  I was (apparently) ‘provocative’ in my presentation.  This is my reflection about the day.  (Reflection is, it would appear, very big in participatory arts right now…)

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I’m just going to be brief.  My aim here is to attempt to scratch a niggling itch that developed at this conference.  I’ve felt it before.  It does not go away.  I think it is, in fact, growing…

The itch results from the appropriation of ‘participatory art’ and ‘participation’ by everyone for everything in which people are in some way involved in art.  There is nothing wrong with this.  People can call what they do whatever they want.  Most of the discussions here were about ‘loosely’ participatory, often artist or organisation-led, forms of participatory practice.  There were some nice examples of ‘community art’ used for obliquely political purposes and of anger at the system.  There was a good breakout session that briefly but effectively introduced ‘dialogic practice’.  I tried to be honest and differentiate forms of social practice.  People seemed to like it.  It stimulated a brief discussion about the de-politicisation of socially engaged or community arts practice, which was interesting.  But, nonetheless, the itch crept and crawled around me…

I think the scratchy itch is a product of artists who think social practice is about leading people, pied piper-like, into doing art their way, to their, sometimes seemingly narcissistic agendas; audience members having sudden epiphanies (echoed by the chair’s closing sermon, complete with mock-amens and ironic hallelujahs!); neutral research about the importance for space for artist reflection; a proposed participatory artist network called PALS; over-invested long-term project members hoping for further funding.  I won’t go on.  Scratch.  Scratch.

Don’t get me wrong.  Events like this (and there are many like this) are fascinating.  Stirring me to do my practice differently.  Fascinating for my research.  Initiatives like ArtWorks are, of course, useful.  They won’t change the (arts) world.  They can’t.  There are too many vested interests; too many believers.  My family were (are) evangelists.  I can spot preachers a mile away.  I know ‘preaching to the converted’ when I see it.

My problem is that the preaching is (unlike that of my Grandmother) weak and bland.  Not radical.  Not potentially emancipatory.  Blurry.  Fuzzy.  Safe.  Not a paradigm-shift.  Perhaps subtle elitism?  Rebuilding the ramparts of an old status-quo.  Be honest.  This will not change the world.

When’s the next one?

‘above ground level’ – old as new, new as old: grassroots social practice in a post-industrial port

This is my presentation for Paul Hamlyn ArtWorks North East ‘Pilots to Practice’ conference at BALTIC.  I gave this as a PechaKucha – using a narrative performance style of delivery.

It’s about dot to dot active arts’ current project, ‘above ground level’, taking place in Blyth, Northumberland.

Please make sure you use notes button at bottom right of window.  So you can see my narrative.

It was well received at the conference.  I’d love your comments and feedback…

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Click the pic or the link below to see the presentation…

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!18861&authkey=!ALznQ1K_jOArSG8&ithint=file%2cpptx

We are socially engaged

This is a reblog of a post I wrote for #culturalvalue initiative which was first published on 2nd September 2014.

This was Eleonora Belfiore’s introduction…

Our regular contributor Stephen Pritchard has kindly agreed to review for The #culturalvalue initiative ‘Evaluation Survey of Artists’, a recent report by ArtWorks, one of the Paul Hamlyn’s Foundation’s Special Initiatives. The Foundation clearly has great ambitions for this project, whose web page states boldly: ‘This Special Initiative is an important intervention that will cause a paradigm shift in the way participatory work is viewed’. The report, and indeed Stephen’s post are therefore focused on the value that is attributed (or, as the case might be is not) to artistic practice that is participatory in nature and focused on fostering personal and social change, and – consequently – on the value that is attached to those artists who focus on this type of work. Because of the legacy of New Labour’s focus on the arts as a means to help deliver on socio-economic agendas, the question of the value of participatory art work with communities is often charged with accusations of ‘instrumentalism’, and the fear (that Stephen shares) is then that the artists might become hired hands charged with the delivery of soft social engineering and the kind of faux-radical type of community engagement that ensures that the fabric of society and the relations of power that govern it remain unchanged. Yet, the most interesting fact to emerge from the data in the ArtsWork report is, in my view, the sense that it is not just policy makers and funders who might fail to appreciate the value participatory arts (a complaint that is almost as old as this form of creative practice itself), but that other creative professionals in other corners of the cultural ecosystem might share in that lack of recognition and appreciation for participatory arts: struggles over cultural value, status and recognition of professional practice clearly are not limited to the arena of the competition for resources but extend to struggles over cultural authority and value amongst creative practitioners themselves.

This is my post…

Paul Hamlyn Foundation created the special initiative, ArtWorks: Developing Practice in Participatory Settings, in 2010 to ‘support the continuing professional development of artists’ (Paul Hamlyn Foundation, 2014).  A ‘workforce scheme’, the project is funded and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Creativity Culture & Education (supported by Arts Council England) and the Cultural Leadership Programme (ibid.).  In the words of PHF, this ‘important intervention’ is designed to ‘cause a paradigm shift in the way participatory work is viewed’, producing ‘enhanced quality and deeper understanding of what is required from artists in generating successful participatory projects’ (ibid).  There are five ArtWorks Pathfinders, each with a differently focused action research project.  The initiative ends in 2015.  In June 2014, the foundation published ArtWorks Evaluation Survey of Artists, the first of several reports emanating from their extensive ‘conversation’ with and about participatory arts.

This post looks at how elements of the report relate to both my socially engaged practice as well as my current doctoral research project.  I’ve followed the ArtWorks initiative with interest since it started.  I attended their Changing the Conversation conference in 2013, thanks to a bursary from them.  Several of their previous reports and provocations are referenced in my doctoral research literature review.  I’m presenting, PechaKucha-style, at the ArtWorks North East Conference entitled, Pilots to Practice – learning approaches for artists working in participatory settings at BALTIC in September 2014.  I took part in this research.  Why mention all this?  Well, I thought I should put my cards on the table.  The cards say: Be critical; take part.  Why am I critical?  The field of social practice/ community arts/ participatory arts/ etc. is a broad church.  Today, artists producing children’s workshops for major institutions form one node, radical activists another.  There are many nodes in the field.  For some people in the art world, much, if not all, of social practice is not art.  I like tension and dissensus.  Social practice offers plenty.  This is good.  I like DIY (or more precisely, Do It With Others); the commons; alternative forms of democratic society.  Some elements of social practice produce these things and more in abundance.  But much of the field is driven by instrumentalism, agendas designed to use ‘participatory art’ as a tool of soft state power and a means of obtaining increased government funding by ticking ‘engaging new audiences/ publics’ boxes – participatory art as a panacea for all life’s ills.  This is neoliberal social change – not social justice.  This is about maintaining, evening deepening, elitism and age-old institutional status quos within the arts – not a paradigm-shift.

Anyway, the report is detailed and interesting and has received a reasonable amount of attention in the arts media, so it’s worth digging into some of the discourse around the data.  Having read the report, four questions sprung to mind:

  • How has the report been portrayed by PHF, the media and on social media?
  • What does it actually say about artists working in participatory settings?
  • What does this report mean for those working in the field of social practice?
  • What’s missing?

The research was conducted over a short period early in 2014 and had a reasonably large core sample size of 868 respondents.  The questionnaire was thorough and the data is undoubtedly well presented.  I recommend that anyone interested in finding out more about the breadth of artists working in the field in the UK at present take a look at the report.  It makes for fascinating reading which, for a practitioner working in the field, like me, feels very familiar.  But what about my questions?

As I mentioned, there have been several responses to the report for other institutions.  For example arts in criminal justice settings organisation, Arts Alliance, focused on the report’s findings that socially engaged artists often felt their work was undervalued and misunderstood within the arts, often received informal training and worked in ways that, and with commissioners who, regularly ignored standards and codes of practice.  They pointed out that only one percent of socially engaged artists worked within criminal justice.  Arts Professional’s headline was that socially engaged art is undervalued, accompanied by the rather strange (given the data) that ‘Artists urge employers and commissioners to invest more in their professional development’.  Their report did not actually discuss the claim made in the strapline in particular detail, however.  Social media, especially Twitter, responded (in general) very positively to the publication of ArtWorks’ report.

PHF in their July 2014 Briefing reported many of the headline statistics from their report and included a comment by ArtWorks Project Director, Dr Susanne Burns.  In her comment, Burns pointed out that almost half of the survey respondents earned more than half their income from socially engaged practice, describing the practice as ‘a significant area of work generating major economic value for artists’.  Much of her commentary centred on the need for better training, CPD, space for reflection, investment, etc.  Her conclusion is worth quoting at length:

Work in participatory settings is valid practice in its own right. It constitutes a major element of many artists’ portfolios and affects the lives of many people across many areas of life. The status of the work must be raised. We must work together to ensure that its economic contribution, as well as its social value, is recognised and that the artists who undertake this work are supported to be the best they can be at all stages of their careers.

There is little to argue with here.  Social practice is a major part of many artists’ creative activities and, increasingly, an essential way of earning a living whilst not getting paid anything/ enough when exhibiting their work.  This is an area I believe that A-N’s #PayingArtists campaign needs to urgently address.  The motives for some artists currently working within ‘participatory settings’ and the intentions behind instrumentalist projects such as Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places may, perhaps, be suspect on occasions – this is, however, another discussion for another day.  The data quite clearly shows that socially engaged artists feel undervalued.  This is unsurprising, given that the field is often belittled by many in the elite arts establishment.  The data illustrates how artists feel that they are not understood by commissioners, nor given enough time to plan properly, nor listened to/ involved enough.  For me, this relates to many personal experiences in which commissioners do not really know what you do, why you are doing it or what they really want to achieve from the commission.  They are more interested in targets, outcomes, numbers, boxes ticked and nice photographs for their websites.  This is not their fault.  This is symptomatic of an evaluation-based culture seeking to provide instrumental results rather than participant experience.

The question of developing courses and degrees and career development opportunities for future socially engaged artists and CPD, standards of practice and formal qualifications for existing practitioners is, for me, something I’m rather sceptical of.  I believe that constantly reflective and reflexive individual practice, married with ‘being the right type of person’ to work in the field, and a person-centred, organic, non-expert approach to learning from people is essential.  I don’t believe this can be taught.  Nonetheless, I fully understand why initiatives such as this and FE providers are keen to exploit the field as a potential source of new earnings and funding.  Attempts to standardise or certify socially engaged artists or to produce ‘toolkits’ will, for me, always be likely to fail; always represent creeping instrumentalism.

So, my overall feeling about ArtWorks Evaluation Survey of Artists is that it contains excellent data that doesn’t indicate a great demand for the field to be formalised or institutionalised but rather stimulates further debate about examining and mapping the field in much greater detail and exposing the multitude of individual practices both working with and against the state in its insidious drive to promote ‘participation for all’.  At present, socially engaged art is not recognised by Arts Council England or many other major institutions.  It has a long history and is often inherently interdisciplinary – not ‘just art’.  Many artists work in the field; many collectives, cooperatives, even constituted organisations, exist for socially engaged art; even (‘non-artist’) activists make socially engaged art.  My feeling is that social practice should be recognised as a valid, varied and independent mode of art-making that should be recognised by ACE and others as separate from other art forms – not classified as part of a generic ‘Cross-art form’ category.  This does not mean the field should be institutionalised or professionalised.  Much of it already is…

Postscript…

This book offers a much more progressive approach to thinking about and learning about social practice…

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BIO…

Stephen Pritchard is an art historian, participatory arts maker, curator and writer with a background in critical literary studies.  He has previously worked in textiles design and manufacture, international business management, quality systems design, and the contemporary arts.  He describes himself as a participatory arts evangelist who’s made many a pact with many devil and that is what he likes – but this is probably not true.  He’s toying with the idea of redefining himself as a gamekeeper-turned-poacher but this will more than likely come to nothing.  His favourite number is zero.

Stephen is currently also executive director of participatory arts social enterprise dot to dot active arts CIC and is also just beginning the first year of his AHRC funded research doctorate entitled: Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?  He is also working as a curator for Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust’s Healing Arts initiative and is helping train recent graduates in curating exhibitions as part of a new initiative with Whistle Stop Arts.  He has just finished a major participatory arts project in empty shops in Blyth, Northumberland called Old-New Curiosity Shop.

stephen@dottodotactivearts.org

@etiennelefleur

@dottodotart

www.colouringinculture.wordpress.com

www.dottodotactivearts.org

www.facebook.com/dottodotactivearts

social practice & social change – my thoughts – an unpublished interview transcript

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This blog post is a transcript of an interview that was never published.  The interviewer asked five questions.  I answered.

 

Can art be an effective way of bringing about social change? If so, any examples? In what ways can it improve people’s lives?

There are many in the arts world who believe art can deliver social change. Arts Council England recently published The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: an evidence review (April 2014), an attempt to make the case for art and culture in terms of benefits to the economy, health and wellbeing, society and education. They’re following a trend in arts and culture towards ‘cultural value’ – attempting to measure and evidence the instrumental values; this is similar to their discussion of intrinsic values described in their Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experiences: a literature review (July 2014). There are many actors involved in the broader cultural value debate including AHRC, The RSA, The University of Warwick Commission, etc. Meanwhile, Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s ArtWorks initiative and AHRC’s Connected Communities are two examples of the many academic collaborations with arts organisations and artists to also investigate the social value of the arts. In short, the debate about art as a vehicle for social change is as vast as it is fluid.

However, it’s not a new debate. Francois Matarasso is perhaps best known for fathering the idea of ‘art as panacea for all society’s ills’ in his influential text Use or Ornament? The social impact of participation in the arts (1997). His report led to a dearth of New Labour initiatives attempting to use arts and cultural projects as cures for everything from run-down urban streets to the unemployed; from rehabilitating offenders to improving the grades of low-performing inner city school children. New Labour’s promotion of arts and culture as integral to their ‘things can only get better’ utopian dream collided with their embracing of technocratic forms of governance underpinned by a positivist scientific measuring and evidencing of every aspect of society. The resulting target-driven, cost-benefit culture meant that Matarasso was criticised for not producing enough (or any) evidence to underpin the many claims he made for the role of arts and culture as a mechanism for positive social change…

So, here we are in 2014. There’s renewed interest and belief in the power of the arts and culture to be recognised as an effective engine for social change. Not just in the UK, but worldwide. Cultural policies around the globe are being honed to embed art and culture as a key aspect of supporting and delivering the agendas of almost every government department and non-government organisation. The problem with this perspective, for me, is three-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, the type of social change being sought here is always state-led and thereby fraught with political and economic agendas, meaning the arts will always be instrumental; beautifully crafted, state-funded tools, imposing the type of soft power that typically underpins neoliberal agendas. Secondly, there is the question of ‘what is social change?’ Arguably anything: Good or bad; emancipatory or totalitarian; always ideological; never likely to result in paradigm-shift. Recycling household waste is social change; but then so is Nazism. Thirdly, artists, participants, audiences and people who do not engage with the arts are usually not consulted or placed at the heart of policy-making of any kind, including cultural policy. This means that they are often left disenfranchised by cultural policies ‘done to them’, not ‘with and for them’. For me, notions of social justice offers more interesting perspectives about fairness and equality. It leaves space for self-organising, radicalism and reimagining.

In some senses, my answer may seem negative or evasive. It is not. I’m merely voicing my concerns. I am wary of grand narratives, of positivism, of state control… The arts have been used very effectively to implement all sorts of state agendas for time immemorial, but they have also been equally effective in opposing the state. I also know that people who engage in arts and cultural activities (whether ‘high’ or ‘popular’ culture) on every level gain insight and experience that is essential to living. Everyone is an example.

Do artists have a responsibility to respond to the social issues that people are concerned about?

An interesting question that immediately prompts memories of the old debate about ‘art for arts’ sake’ versus ‘art as social’. Artists respond to whatever intrigues them in whatever way they see fit. This is an essential element of their quasi-autonomous position in our world. In some cases, artists respond directly to political issues as radical activists, whilst other artists respond to social issues in ways that support political positions and policy. Others are happy painting watercolour seaside themes ad infinitum. Nothing wrong with any of this. All are matters of individual choice and circumstance. No artist has a duty to respond to social issues, although because artists are situated within society, their art is always to one degree or another socially constructed.

Anyway, ‘social issues that people are concerned about’ sounds like another grand narrative. What are these issues and who are concerned about them?

What are the most challenging aspects of working in the area of socially engaged art?

Socially engaged art is, for me, a very freeing mode of working with people and art. Social practice often takes place outside of galleries and in public places; its emphasis is on process and experience rather than aesthetics and autonomy. But this way of working creates positives and tensions. It’s a challenge to self-organise with little money; a challenge to not know who will turn up or what might happen; a challenge to not impose (or, more realistically, to minimise) positions of power within the dynamics of a socially engaged intervention so that the participants can develop a process their way. Social practice is about risk and uncertainty. It’s fun to be able to work independently but also a constant struggle. These challenges (and, probably, many more) are what makes the field so liberating for practitioners and (hopefully) participants.

Is there a way that artists can ensure they create meaningful relationships with local communities?

Tough question. Many practitioners, policy-makers and academics tend to believe that meaningful relationships with communities need to be developed slowly and carefully. I believe that short-term grassroots interventions can create ‘meaningful relationships’ (difficult to define) within communities. I also firmly assert that long-term embedding of artists in communities can be dangerous and not necessarily conducive to fostering creative independence within communities. I’ve been accused of ‘parachuting in’ many times – whether the intervention lasted a day or three months. Interestingly, these accusations always come from other local artists and arts organisations, never from local people who take part. This leads me to conceive of the role of the socially engaged artist as always that of ‘outsider’ (unless the person actually lives in the area, in which case, there are a whole load of other problems likely to arise). As outsiders, we must always be aware that we are privileged and that we can only help others find and make new potential spaces in which they may discover something about themselves that they can hopefully feed into their communities. We do this by being open to the new and by being ‘grassroots’ in our approach – never elitist or aloof. We develop close affinities, often in very short periods of time, and hopefully retain memories that remain with us, but we will always leave. We must…

How is socially engaged art perceived in the art world as a whole?

Many see the practice as ‘not art’ or as amateurish or political or radical or as an instrument for soft state control. All these condemnations are, sometimes, undoubtedly true. The field of socially engaged practice as ‘participation’ is broad, spanning everything from face-painting to Occupy. This is both a strength and a weakness. Also, the interdisciplinary nature of some practices means that boundaries are often blurred between art, science, politics, environmentalism, etc., etc. I think this inability to neatly box socially engaged art is exciting for practitioners but threatening for many traditional arts organisations and artists; it is also confusing for many policy-makers and academics. People taking part do not care what we call what we do. We don’t label our work. For participants, we’re us – people who listen and help them do creative stuff, or challenge people to think differently, to think more…

In my view, any attempt to accredit or institutionalise socially engaged art means it’s no longer ‘socially engaged’ but ‘participatory’. It’s socially engaged art’s ability to challenge status quos, even work with others to radically challenge the state, from positions independent from the state that makes the practice interesting and attractive to more and more artists as a viable way of making art with people rather than for organisations.

Fools Gold – is #FolkestoneGold ‘participatory art’?

#FolkestoneGold.  Popular and extremely newsworthy.  People digging for little chunks of gold on the beach in Folkestone is certainly an arts marketing dream; a boon for this year’s Folkestone Triennial.  Folkestone Digs was commissioned by new Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation Situations and produced by Berlin-based artist Michael Sailstorfer.  But what does this public art work say about ‘participatory art’?  Is it a ‘gold rush’ or cold exploitation?  When the veil of secrecy was first lifted on Folkestone Digs, I felt cold and uncomfortable…

Then lyrics from my youth by The Stone Roses shuffled about somewhere inside:

I’m standing alone
I’m watching you all
I’m seeing you sinking
I’m standing alone
You’re weighing the gold
I’m watching you sinking

Fool’s gold

Earlier now.  The early 1980s.  Unemployment.  Riots.  Thatcher.  Grey…  No.  Not everything was grey, was it?

Not summer holidays away from my Jarrow home stripped bare once and forever by industry-killing, North loathing Tories!

Memories of Blackpool, Scarborough, Filby (near Great Yarmouth); Butlins, Pontins, other less uniform caravan parks.  I remember now…

Crap pirate boat trips to cheap play sand islands floating on worn out re-treads in sludgy pools no deeper than knee-high to an eight-year old.  Cardboard palms, polyester sateen ‘slops’, wiry nylon ringlet wigs and drawn-on market-stall mascara beards.  Searching for Hong Kong doubloons on ‘organised’ summer holiday activities for the kids.

I loved it!  Wanted more.  I was a swashbuckling buccaneer.  The plastic cutlass my dad bought me soon became a cherished souvenir.  (Until next year.)

Back again.

Summer holidays 2014 are almost over.  A new ‘participatory artwork’ was grabbing media attention.  Not just the arts media either.  Wow!  An artist had hidden 30 pieces of gold worth £10,000 under the beach at Folkestone.  Hmm…  Apparently, it’s a game of ‘finders, keepers’!  People who don’t do art are, well, doing art.  They’re digging for gold.  Plastic buckets and spades for the kids, garden-standard hardware for the adults, and dusted down metal detectors for the, erm, metal detectors.

Headlines screamed:

Folkestone gold rush as town digs deep for public art

 

And other obvious (like this blog’s title), glimmeringly superficial phrases.

Straplines and copy heralded this new public artwork as ‘participatory art’.  The curator, Lewis Biggs, said: “It is a participatory artwork. It is about people coming to the beach and digging and possibly finding hidden treasure. Some people will get lucky, some people will not get lucky – and that’s life.”  This, for me, seemed worrying.  Searching for dog-tag sized bars of 24-carat gold.  (Ooh!  ‘They may be more valuable as art works than if traded-in at ‘We Buy Any Gold’, etc. etc.)  A curator who thinks participation is about some people winning whilst others lose is a metaphor for life?  I could go on.  You get the gist.

Folkestone Digs is undeniably art.  We say it is, so it is!  It is also participatory.  But then so is gambling in local bookies, sitting in traffic jams on the M6, rioting – most things…

For me, it’s the cynically exploitative undertones of this art work that concerns me; the monetisation of participatory experience; the lack of any depth to the work other than the position of each piece of metal in relation to the surface of the sand.  These types of ‘participatory art’ are becoming commonplace.  They are not about social justice or dialogic approaches or co-producing.  This is artist-led.  Aesthetic.  Art as treasure map.  This is a different form of participation in the arts from the type of social and ecological practices I am interested in.  The only ideology this type of ‘participatory-lite’ art espouses is capitalism.

Wandering thought:

A bloke turns up with a JCB.  Somehow, by stealth or corruption, he digs up the whole beach and carts it away, taking all but one, it is later revealed, of the golden art works with him.  They are never found.  Neither is the one that got away…

Enough.

Where’s my old family Polaroid folder?