#ParkingSpace @thestovies – some images from a great weekend in Dumfries with The Stove & @openjartweets

I was invited to talk about The New Rules Of Public Art at The Stove’s Parking Space event on Friday.  Stayed around for some of Saturday too…

Amazing people. Great atmosphere and spirit. Nice art, films and participation. All in a disused but still open NCP multistorey car park in the heart of the Scottish town of Dumfries…

Thank you for inviting me!

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Is socially engaged art ‘innovative’? (A word game with scrapheap prizes.)

a blade of grass is a great online resource for socially engaged artists – frequently a site for interesting discussion and debate in and around the field. The Growing Dialogue section of their website is, in their words, a place for ‘moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice’. The latest strand of debate is entitled The Latest Thing. It’s about the relationship ‘innovation’ may have to socially engaged art. For me, it’s infuriating. There’ve been a string of posts and comments about ‘innovation’. I interjected via twitter early on, after the first provocation was published. This blog post is my response to the on-going discussion. I don’t want to rehearse the arguments made in the series of posts on the website by various ‘leaders’ (I dislike the term) in the field. I prefer to explore the discourse of ‘innovation’ in relation to the arts, socially engaged practice and social justice as another way of thinking about the (apparent) ‘latest thing’.

 

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Break Down, Michael Landy, 2001

 

When curator and critic, Elizabeth Grady, opened the discussion with her blog post Interrogating Innovation in Socially Engaged Art, I responded, via twitter, as follows:

For me, ‘innovation’ is, today, too closely linked to neoliberalism. Radical action and justice shape socially engaged art?

Jethro Brice said in reply that we should ‘drop the ideology of innovation’ and ‘keep pursuing creative, discursive, engagement’. I said that ‘innovation was not a term that sits comfortably with social practice’. Mark Leach summed things up with the brilliantly simple, ‘I’m down with dropping ideologies’.

A flurry of further posts followed. I’m not going to discuss any of these posts in detail. Their titles give a flavour:

The problem I have in this debate is the word ‘innovation’ and how wholly or partly it is happily or doubtfully accepted as a driver of modern art, the avant-garde, socially engaged art, social change, social justice, etc., etc. Innovation is, according to Elizabeth Grady, ‘often found under its more common moniker, “change”’. This blurring is extremely problematic. Innovation is not the same as change. It is also worth clarifying that notions of ‘the ideology of innovation’ are problematic. Innovation is not an ideology but its use is ideological. Grady, in the same sentence in which she conflates innovation and change, also states that, ‘the assignment of value—good or bad—to the term “innovation”… is ideological’. Innovation is used as a foil for several ideologies, as we shall see. But, for me, innovation is not a term that relates (or at least should be related to) socially engaged art.

Socially engaged art is about working with people to explore and create experiences; about activism; about spaces and places; about dissensus, tension, oscillations; even aesthetics (in the broadest sense of the word. Social practice can be about technology. None of these things involve innovation. We do not innovate. Instrumentalised participatory art isn’t innovative either. It’s just another way of appropriating art done to, for or with people to support soft state power; a means of selling meagre forms of top-down ‘social change’. Social justice is never about innovation either. Modernism wasn’t about innovation. The avant-garde movements were not innovators.

Innovation is creeping, insidiously into every aspect of life. Clearly, as is apparent in this debate about ‘the latest thing’ in socially engaged art, innovation is also infiltrating this field (at least in the minds of some people). It’s now popping up like bindweed, twisting around the discourse of Arts Council England and other arts institutions. The expansion of digital technology and Big Data into ‘the cultural industries’ is undoubtedly one driver; the need to measure and better advocate for the arts another. The commonality: capitalism. That’s why it’s important to carefully explore what ‘innovation’ actually means, its origins and how the word is commonly used.

Are ‘innovation’, ‘innovate’, ‘innovative’ words loaded with meaning? Certainly. Are they commonplace nowadays? Definitely. Has this always been the case? No. So what’s changed?

Innovation is almost a de facto requirement in every aspect of our lives: from marketing to policymaking; manufacturing to business management; economics to education; and, of course, arts and culture. The word tends to be associated with ‘newness’ – new ideas, new technology, new systems, new things, etc. It is very closely related to technology. Unsurprising, then, that the usage of ‘innovation’ has increased (and continues to increase) exponentially since the 1960s. So what does the word mean? A glance at the Oxford English Dictionary entry for ‘innovation’ reveals it has (or had) several meanings. It is commonly defined as:

The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms. †Formerly const. of (the thing altered or introduced).

The modernist movement in art might, in some (aesthetic) cases, be considered to fit with this description. The avant-garde artists would be horrified. Innovation in modern art is a concept tied to the formalist and historically linear theories of Clement Greenberg – to his 1939 essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch. The trouble is that innovation is a term frequently applied to modernist art, to society, history, etc. retrospectively, of in place of words like ‘invention’ or ‘creativity’.

Linked to the notion of innovation is ‘disruptive innovation’ or ‘obsolescence’. Progress of ‘the new’ quickly relegates the old to the scrapheap. This brings me to my root problem with innovation: today it is irrevocably linked to technology and thereby to consumerism. We are led by neoliberalism to believe innovation will eventually lead to salvation. It will not. Innovation will not lead to emancipation, nor equality, nor social justice, nor new forms of truly democratic living. Innovation will lead to the new that soon becomes the old; not necessarily better (whatever that might mean). It might seem that the cycle of innovation will never be broken. It will. It is just a word. A word which has engrained within it its own demise. Innovation will become obsolete, replaced by something else, something similar, something newer.

So to ascribe a word like ‘innovation’ to socially engaged art is a misnomer. An attempt to subsume an area of contemporary art practice that resists and challenges notions of the art market, of art as economic, of audiences as consumers, etc. into the mainstream, increasingly capitalist system of ‘the culture industry’. Many forms of the field (which I tend to label participatory art) are happy to be instrumentalised and justified for their supposed economic benefits. That’s fine. But, for me, there’s no place for ‘innovation’ in my socially engaged practice or my research. Socially engaged art is not ‘The Latest Thing’. Be suspicious of those who suggest otherwise.

A little reflection on the Culture Action Europe #BeyondTheObvious conference

This week has been hectic.  Research visits in London with Platform London and Ovalhouse Theatre; a participatory art workshop commission for Berwick Visual Arts; working on a lab session about collective working, the commons and ending status-quos for arts organisations that I’m co-delivering in London in November; talking about The New Rules for Public Art with a Scottish artist’s collective; working to continue to develop our work with dot to dot active arts in Blyth; developing new NHS commissions in Cumbria and Northumberland; and attending the Culture Action Europe Beyond the Obvious conference which took place in NewcastleGateshead over the past few days.

This is a very short blog post about my experience at the conference and my hopes for the Beyond the Familiar ‘fringe’ event tomorrow.

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The conference was clearly split between the policy-following institutions and the smaller, more radical factions and artists.  I met a great many radical thinkers, some socially engaged activists, and even some policymakers who seemed to see the need for big changes to the way arts and culture is funded and who it is for.  This was great!

I heard many ‘old-school’ perspectives – a bit of ‘knowledge sharing’ here; a little ‘partnership working’ there’; even the ubiquitous ‘we’re doing this already’ and ‘we’ve always worked like this’.  I rolled my eyes like one of Sendak’s Wild Things.  Over my years of practicing in this field, I developed a proficiency for this.

All was not lost, however, because, even though ‘the great and the good’ reeled off their ‘holistic cases for public investments’ and chanted ‘cultural regeneration’ mantras, the voice of dissent was clear amongst a significant number of the people there.  This was very encouraging.

The session that nailed the distinction between the forces of elitism, instrumentalism, policymaking and institution-building and the guerrilla tactics of those into ‘small’, local, grassroots collective strategic engagement happened earlier today.  In short, the UK What Next? movement was pitted against grassroots political and socially engaged activist movements from Europe (Spain and Croatia).  This was a battle of tea and biscuits versus take-to-the-streets (and Net) protests; polite discussion versus political activism.  The UK’s navel-gazing about ‘how do we get people to understand the arts?’ was exposed for all it’s frailties and limpness.  The activists have the answer: ENGAGE outside of institutions; be grassroots; take art to the people; make art as a people.

These are critical debates that are just not often had in the UK.  Art as social practice is immensely capable of bringing arts to the people – a force for real paradigm shift.  It is anti-elitist, grassroots and political.  People not into art get it because they are a part of it.  The ‘arts leaders’ and policymakers with their top-down approaches do not seem to understand that grassroots, self-organised, collective action offers other, more truly democratic ways to place art and culture back where it belongs – by and of the people.

I look forward to tomorrow…

The New (un)Rules of Public Art

I remember reading The New Rules of Public Art sometime last year, not long after Situations UK published them.  I liked them at the time.  There were a couple of things that I didn’t quite agree with.  I also recently wrote about my misgivings about Situations UK’s recent Folkestone Triennial commission Folkestone Gold so revisiting ‘The Rules’ seemed like a good idea when I was asked to think about them for a forthcoming event (more later). I have and these are my thoughts…

I don’t like rules.  I like some rules Dogme 95’s ‘Vow of Chastity’ (ten rules).  I don’t like The Ten Commandments.

‘The Rules’ – there are twelve – read like an old-new (post)modernist manifesto for (un)thinking some of the concrete thoughts cast solid by years and years of state and local government ‘investment’.  Flimsy pillars reifying regeneration.  Situations presentation is, as ever, flawless and beautifully illustrated.  ‘The Rules’ make for convincing reading.  I like the alternatives they offer – not original but concise.  For me, old public art, with its endless production of ‘permanent’ works, is akin to the state’s current preoccupation with ‘investment in bricks and mortar’ – both approaches see permanence as ‘value for money’.  The trouble, for me, is that in public art and public arts buildings, the investment required is huge; maintenance costs spiral; the shimmer soon fades – time for another facelift.  Situations manifesto suggests (but does not explicitly state) that temporal, impermanent public interventions can often make big impacts – different impacts.  Temporal public art also cost a lot less money and can constantly mutate and renew.  It’s responsive and reflexive. It creates a vibrant cultural scene that surprises people, engages people.  There are no landmarks in the landscape of New Public Art.

‘The Rules’ is full of incitements.  This is a practice based upon the delightful and unsettling; ‘here-day-gone-tomorrow’; ‘uncertainty and rethinking’; the ‘unforeseen’ and ‘unusual’; ‘transformation’; and ‘interruptions’.  Places where ‘outsiders’ are welcomed into worlds were not all may not be as it seems; where, devoid of maps, it is easy to get lost; where notions of truths do not matter.  I like this world.  I like this way of practicing not just public art but also socially engaged art – social practice.  In this way, social practice (at least when done in public spaces) is public art – possibly New Public Art.  But this is not the focus for ‘The Rules’.  They are about artist-led practice – not social practice.  This is absolutely fine, but, for me, I would expand ‘The Rules’ to include people-led public art.

To open the rules to all forms of public art practice would require changing (or broadening) two of the rules in particular: rules four and eight.  I would like to clarify why I am not comfortable with these rules by stating them below in full then very briefly commenting on each.

Rule no. 04

DON’T MAKE IT FOR A COMMUNITY. CREATE A COMMUNITY.

Be wary of predefining an audience. Community is rarely born out of geography, but rather out of common purpose – whether that be a Flatbread Society of farmers, bakers and activists building a bakehouse or 23,000 citizens across 135 countries writing a constitution for a new nation. As Brian Eno once said, “sometimes the strongest single importance of a work of art is the celebration of some kind of temporary community.”

The idea of artists or art or cultural policy being able to ‘create a community’, whether temporal or permanent, is idealistic and ideologically unsound.  It is not our job to create communities; nor should we make work ‘for a community’ or predefine audiences (or, for that matter, participants).  For me, we create work with individuals – sometimes communities, more often groups.  Whether artist-led, process-led, people-led, whatever, we do not make places or communities.  We do create spaces – temporal or otherwise.

Rule no. 08

SHARE OWNERSHIP FREELY, BUT AUTHORSHIP WISELY.

Public art is of the people and made with the people, but not always by the people. Artists are skilled creative thinkers as well as makers. They are the charismatic agents who arrive with curious ideas – a black pavilion could be barnraised in a Bristol park, a graveyard could be built to commemorate the Enrons and West India Companies of our fallen economy, the sounds of a church organ might bleed out across the city through a mobile app. Trust the artist’s judgment, follow their lead and invest in their process.

Firstly, I have problems with notions of both ‘ownership’ and ‘authorship’, but that is another discussion.  For me, people should always challenge ‘the artist’s judgement’, not trust it; work together rather than following ‘their lead’; otherwise, why ‘invest’ (another problematic term) ‘in their process’?

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Between the Door and the Street, Suzanne Lacy, Installation at the Brooklyn Museum, 2013

 

These issues are easily resolved.  My discomfort with these two rules was easily resolved when I now think back to the realisation I had when I first read ‘The Rules’: isn’t this just new genre public art-lite?  The ‘lite’ relates to the omission by Situations UK of socially engaged practice – politics and activism stripped bare.  The New Rules of Public Art are actually, then, the old rules of new genre public art (championed by Suzanne Lacy, amongst others), sanitised for state and local government consumption; participatory in the very loosest sense of the word.