The Values Of Opposition in Socially Engaged Practice (a response to Anthony Schrag)

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Ken Saro-Wiwa Memorial Bus, large format digital print, part of Doing Nothing is Not an Option, Michael McMillan and Platform London, Peckham Platform, 2015

 

I was, like Anthony Schrag (and others I know), infuriated by the recent ArtWorks Conversation at BALTIC 39.  Anthony has written a little about the pairing of Ilana Mitchell (Wunderbar and other things) and Darren O’Donnell (Mammalian Diving Reflex) today in a piece entitled The Value Rant, but his rant was not at them and not (directly) at ArtWorks or their ‘critical conversations’.  Anthony was, like me, incredibly annoyed by the idea that socially engaged or participatory art (it would seem you can call it what you will nowadays – but that’s a topic for another post) could and/ or should be ‘scaled-up’ and professionalised.  But that wasn’t what really angered him.  It was the incessant droning of an ‘excited’ hipster political student that set free a passel of possums from their cage.  (To be clear the excited hipster didn’t sound or appear particularly excited with anything other than his own drawn-out ideas and self-aggrandisement.)

The thing is that I had intended to blog about the event the very next day as I was so angry.  But (oddly for me, perhaps) I decided against it and put the event down to another one of ‘those ArtWorks things’ – a now very familiar feeling.  Having read Anthony’s humorous-yet-deadly-incisive ‘rant’, I felt compelled to respond to several issues and personal opinions he raised.  They’re incredibly important and at the heart of much of the ongoing debate (bickering?) that has dogged our field of practice for years.  There are, I believe, many areas upon which Anthony and I (broadly) agree but there are several places where our views diverge.  For me this is a good thing.  We both enjoy the oscillating thrills and pulsating challenges that only tension can invoke (although perhaps Anthony may not entirely agree…)  I will not discuss the event other than to say that I struggled to get beyond Ilana’s brilliantly idiosyncratic thinking and making, and the instrumentalism inherent within Darren’s work.

So what do I think Anthony and agree on?  We both are clearly very sceptical at the very least to institutionalisation, professionalism agendas, instrumentalism, ‘scaling-up’, best practice, toolkits – basically anything homogenous – because we believe our practice is and must always be relational, dynamic, and respect the autonomies of artists and people taking part alike.  As Anthony says, ‘the very things that are unreproducible, un-scale-up-able, un-repeatable.’  But where he sees attempts to totally administer socially engaged art as the product of wayward best intentions, I see authoritarian technocratic control and oppression.  Where he finds positivity in at least some aspects of the ArtWorks project, I am deeply suspicious of their intentionality.

I found the ‘man-bunned politics student’ to be very boring and rather naïve yet almost ludic at times.  He made me grimace, smile, laugh.  Where he unleashed Anthony’s ‘angry possums’ from his mind, he filled mine with cartoon hind legs and badly drawn donkeys.  He genuinely believed that the examples of practice he had witnessed were ‘new’.  He did not know about socially engaged or participatory practice and that’s fine.  Tedious for those of us who’ve spent a long time practicing and studying the ‘expanded field’; interesting and exciting to him.  But Anthony is entirely right that the practice is ‘not new’, doesn’t (mustn’t). ‘be professionalised’ and is certainly not ‘a new saviour of art.’  For me, the politico-hipster wasn’t ‘ill-informed’ or ignorant, he was rather unaware of the history of our practice.  There are many people like him within the Art World as well as outside it.  That’s fine.  Marginal practices are often (wrongly) believed to be ‘new’ when first encountered whether through touristic exploration or strategic colonialism.  I’d go as far as to say that what matters most to us – histories, theories and practical nuances – matters least to interested attendees of critical conversations, participants, people who don’t like ‘art’, or other people from within the Art World.

Of course, Anthony wasn’t really rattled by our moustachioed interloper.  He was (is) angered by the opposing forces of instrumentalising institutionalism on the one hand; activism and political agendas on the other.  But I take issue he seems to suggest that those with activist and/ or political agendas/ ideologies do not know enough about the field’s history or theoretical underpinnings.  This is simply not true in every case.  In opposing these oppositions, Anthony places himself in the middle alongside some other ‘lovely, passionate people’ who are, like everyone, flawed and being crushed by institutionalism and those who do not understand (although I suspect the crushing comes mainly from one direction only).

I share Anthony’s passion that socially engaged practice is primarily about ‘what happens between and with other people‘ and, of course, people want to influence others but there are many forms this may take from authoritarian control to utopian imaginings and liberation.  Anthony is also right about the need for practitioners within the field to ‘come together’ much more than we tend to do at present.  However, I am very sceptical about developing a ‘continuum of practice’.  I believe that the field must be broad and must include tension: internal oppositions; never consensus.  Indeed, Anthony is hesitant about formal definitions within the field.  Interestingly, he also thinks that we must understand which direction ‘we might be heading in’ as well as who our potential allies are and those ‘who might not know what they are talking about’.  In response, I’d suggest: we can have multiple directions; and that our allies (theoretical and practical) might include many activists as well as others from other fields and other cultures – activists who do not seek to control others but who do, like all of us, have beliefs, ideologies, political affiliations, and most importantly biases that make it impossible  for anyone (artist or otherwise) to divorce themselves from this ‘baggage’.  Sometimes, however, the baggage can be good.  There is no such thing as values-free art.  We cannot dismiss, as Anthony does in a comment to my reply to his blog post, any work that may be, or be suspected of being, political or activist or state instrumentalist for that matter of being ‘not art’ – of being a form of ‘social work’.  That’s not to say that much of what’s being peddled as participatory or (now) socially engaged art isn’t deeply instrumental, controlling and stigmatising at worst and ‘social work’ at best.

I think that there’s a fine line between Anthony’s position on socially engaged practice and my own.  For Anthony good socially engaged practice must enable ‘shifts in thinking’ by ‘unravelling’ the world without trying to change people’s minds; I agree but would add that we can work with people to create open spaces where people can challenge their understanding of themselves and the world through creative practices (whether artist-led or otherwise) and that this process might help some people to better understand their place in the world as it is today as well as to begin to envisage other ways, new potentialities that they have within their power to struggle to make real.  A long but perhaps necessary addendum.  This is political and revolutionary.  It does not foreclose on possibilities or individualities.  It is not pluralistic democracy.  It has no fixed agenda any more so than the many excellent examples of socially engaged art’s heritage that Anthony carefully lists in his post – examples that are (at least where named or labelled) all deeply political and often activist in nature.

Perhaps Anthony and I can agree that socially engaged practice must be oppositional (and agonistic?) in ways both he describes in his blog and I attempt to do here.  Perhaps opposition is one of the directions for our field of practice.  Perhaps activism is another.  Sophie Hope (chair) certainly seemed to indicate her absolute frustration that we (the field) don’t say NO – don’t oppose the status quo – when she admirably summed up the event’s proceedings…

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Reblog: Art and (In)equality–a film of my provocation @CREATEglos event on 1st June 2015

All this talk of “revelatory” discovery that arts and culture are exclusive makes me remember my talk at CREATEglos in July. Click the link to see the film…

Source: Art and (In)equality–a film of my provocation @CREATEglos event on 1st June 2015

 

Hurrah, the Culture is Finished!

This blog post initially vented some of my concerns about cultural policy and cultural value in particular. Nearly two years old, its premise still drives much of my practice and research.

Comments and discussion most welcome…

colouring in culture

This mini-essay was first published on the #culturalvalue initiative website on 5th January 2014. I’m reblogging it here with their introduction.

Stephen’s witty and well researched mini-essay contribution to The #culturalvalue Initiative originated in a lively twitter conversation that followed the publication of Daniel Allington’s guest post, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective in early December 2013. The conversation started off as a debate on the merits of Bourdieu’s work in pushing forward the cultural value debate and soon broadened to the relative merits of different disciplinary approaches. I was fascinated by the exchange between Stephen and Daniel, but it soon became apparent that it was more complex than a twitter debate could cope with. So, I invited Stephen to write a short guest post response to Daniel’s piece so that interesting conversation could continue on this site. This would allow to keep a permanent record of it and…

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northernGAME: Social practice in rural South West Northumberland

I gave this presentation on 16th November 2015 at Durham University’s Participatory Research Hub.  The event aimed to explore what happens “when participatory research meets the creative sector”.  My presentation introduces dot to dot active arts, features my recent paper A View Is Always Worth It: Social Practice in Rural North East England, then reflects upon a project I collaborated on with Stevie Ronnie in 2014 – northerngame.

I think it reveals a more idealistic aspect of my research and practice.  The intention was to explore the subtleties of self-initiated grassroots socially engaged art.  The beginnings of something.  Curiosities.

Comments always welcome as usual.

Please click the picture or link below to go to the online presentation and please remember to click the “notes” option on the bottom right of the PowerPoint screen for my text.

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Shop window, Allendale, Northumberland

 

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Do we need to develop institutions to work with communities? Can’t artists work directly with and within communities? A response to #CommunityArts conference at The Black-E

Dotto, Courtesy of The Black-E.

I asked the two questions in my title as an immediate response to a panel entitled ‘What kind of organisation do we need to develop to work with communities…?’  The problem seemed obvious; becoming increasingly apparent as the Community Arts?  Learning from the Legacy of Artists’ Social Initiatives conference (part of Liverpool Biennial’s programming) progressed.  Those ‘learning’ from artists should be organisations – who presumably had recently learned or were still learning the importance of working with people outside of our narrow arts world.  This is, for me, a deeply problematic and unsettling narrative.  Questions of appropriation sprang to mind.

Reflecting back, it was clear from the offset when (co-convenor) Sally Tallant said she preferred to ‘challenge institutions from the inside’ – a now rather hackneyed phrase within the arts.  Fellow co-convenor Andrea Phillips presented a much more oppositional stance.  She quickly highlighted the inherent ‘contradictions’ linked to the ‘institutionalisation of participation and engagement’ which could lead to the ‘banalisation of community’.  She pointed to Community Arts’ deeply ‘political investment’ which had been dampened within a ‘misrecognition of intent’ and the Blairite shift from notions of ‘exclusion to inclusion’.

The founders of The Black-E and conference hosts, Bill and Wendy Harpe, presented a brief overview of their incredible archive of almost 50 years of community arts interventions and participatory exhibitions.  Their commitment and passion was infectious.  ‘Participation used to have one meaning – now we have 101’, said Bill.  He later revealed that The Black-E were facing Arts Council cuts of 35% – the highest level of any NPO organisation in Liverpool.  He was, as always, upbeat in his determination to keep going.  For me, cuts to The Black-E with its long history of working as part of communities, represents an insidious and conscious decision by Arts Council England to replace great community art by artists and smaller organisations with glass bastions such as Home and The Factory (and many others around the country).

Frances Rifkin followed a fast-paced Jason Bowman with a more pointedly political reflection upon the field of practice.  ‘We saw our work as political, transformative – not as do-gooders,’ she explained.  She regretted the point in time when ‘the exclusive notion of excellence began to creep in’.  She talked about battles, the importance of trade unionism and marginalisation.  Issues I feel are all implicated within the creeping professionalisation and institutionalisation of our field.  ‘The use of volunteers is one way of not funding artists,’ she added before going on to say that it was ‘disgraceful there were no opportunities for young artists’ today.  Frances revealed she was optimistic about a shift within the arts because, and I echo her thoughts, big arts organisations and funders such as Arts Council England are vulnerable after suffering from round after round of austerity.

Later Sophie Hope declared that Community Art could be seen as a form of ‘oppositional practice’ that rejected the marketisation and professionalisation endemic within the field today.  Later still, Nato Thompson whistled through several of Creative Time’s ‘commissions’.  His narrative was interesting.  ‘We do public art,’ he said.  He was immediately followed by Anna Colin of Open School East.  She described the school as collective and self-organising with ‘a structure that’s quite light – self-reflexive and self-critical’.  Yet, I was left wondering about the intentions of the founders: The Barbican Centre and CREATE London…

There was a perceivable heightening of tensions when Tate’s Director of Learning, Anna Cutler, began by asking the audience, ‘Who would define your practice as educational or learning?’  Not many hands went up.  She seemed ruffled.  ‘I would like to see things changed,’ she said rather unconvincingly.  She attempted and failed to describe ‘socially engaged practice’ as a ‘sliding scale’ in which she said she ‘liked to think I’m in the middle’.  Safe and sound!  Except, for me, Tate do not do socially engaged art – they do outreach and education programmes and participation.  Oh, and let’s not forget their dodgy sponsors!!  (#BPMustGo!)  ‘As long as you’re transparent with participants, its ok,’ and, ‘It’s all about changing the processes, otherwise you’re just moaning from the outside,’ and ‘We’re an institution…  change takes a long time,’ she added.  Tensions rose further.  Then, after several more references to change from Anna, I asked my question.  The room ignited.

The rest of the day was notable for Sonia Boyce’s beautifully moving work, for some sort of democratic intervention that demanded more time for open comments (which were a little disjointed but really welcome) and a great summing up by Andrea Phillips.  I listened intently to the various perspectives on Granby Four Streets but still felt somehow uncomfortable with the project and its potential to become an unwitting (perhaps even knowing) agent for gentrification.  I remembered Andrea Phillips conclusion to Art and Housing: The Private Connection (2012):

The artist is a self-builder.  The rich man is a self-builder.  The yachts at Venice, with their open invitations for cocktails to socially engaged artists, facilitate the perfect and paradoxical nexus of new “social” housing.  The poor can only stand and stare.

My lasting memories of this exceptionally interesting and revealing conference revolve around the notion of oppositions.  Community Arts was an oppositional movement.  Socially engaged art is based on the premise of anti-institutionalism, amongst other things.  Institutions seem to feel that they can, given enough time and, undoubtedly lots of money, change to take on the role of community artist.  This move will come at the expense of the local, independent, autonomous interventions of many individual artists, collectives and smaller artist-led organisations working within communities.  Community Arts is about trust and togetherness.  Are large arts organisations really best placed to replace people (artists) who are driven to work in this way?  Can they?

We must indeed learn from the legacy of Community Arts and STORM THE CITADELS as Owen Kelly suggested back in 1984!