Socially engaged art–marginal practices & critical utopias

I delivered this talk about my research to the Northumbria - Sunderland AHRC Centre for Doctoral Training Student Conference on the 1st July 2015 at The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art.  It’s about negating a negation – negative dialectics.  It’s also about some of the potentialities that socially engaged art may be able to explore as part of broader movements for social justice and emancipation from the shackles of our present neoliberal regime.

For me, our current technocratic and bureaucratic state is, at every level, unfair, unjust, unequal – not just maintaining status quos but tightening their strange-holds upon our ways of living.  The field of arts and culture is no exception.  It’s mutation (under the hands of politicians, policy-makers, funders, arts and cultural institutions, financial and business backers, etc.) into The Creative Industries is deeply troubling.  Horkheimer and Adorno saw this coming.  Totally administered arts.  Totally administered society.  My work is optimistic and hopeful.  The outcomes are always unknown.  But it is essential that I also explore, through negative dialectics, the acts of negation that have, to a large extent, imposed outside rules and policies upon artists, people, communities in the name of progress, economics, austerity, excellence, or whatever.

Enough said.

Please feel free to either take a look at my presentation online here or by clicking the image below (remember to click the ‘NOTES’ button in the bottom right corner of the PowerPoint Online window); or read a transcript of my talk below.

The images in the presentation are from my five longitudinal studies as well as some of my own.  They are meant to sometimes jar with the text; sometimes complement.  You decide.

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SOCIALLY ENGAGED ART – MARGINAL PRACTICES AND CRITICAL UTOPIAS

Hello. I’m Stephen Pritchard. This is my second year of research-based doctoral study. I am also a socially engaged arts practitioner and a curator. Five months into a six month period of paternity leave.

[I must not research.]

So, rather than present what you’ve (possibly) already heard me say before, I thought I’d try a more autoethnographic, prosaic form.

Snippets. Thread ends. Scraps of thoughts. Slices of other writing. Holes. Never wholes. Titbits of other talks. Scrambled. Jumbled. Sometimes lucid. Things from around the edges.

5 MONTHS AND NO RESEARCH. [REPEAT: I MUST NOT RESEARCH.]

THINKS: Start a little formally (to begin with…)

RESEARCH QUESTION: Can participatory art support sustainable social change? THIS WILL CHANGE.

The directions of research will not.

HERBERT MARCUSE: “How can art speak the language of a radically different experience, how can it represent the qualitative difference? How can art invoke images and needs of liberation which reach into the depth dimension of human existence, how can it articulate the experience not only of a particular class, but all of the oppressed?”

HYPOTHESIS: Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and agonistic forms of counter-hegemonic activism and/ or greater personal and social awareness, of supporting a paradigm-shift towards a world where neoliberalism is replaced by a different type of democracy that embraces social justice, encourages grassroots participation and inspires a spirit of self-directed mutual learning.

CHANGE IT! Too long. Wordy. Idealistic? NO. Utopian? Marginal practices? YES.

MOYLAN: “This alliance of margins without a center anticipates in both the personal and political dimensions the new values and the new society.”

THEORY: Deeply complex. Interdisciplinary.

Can theories of literary criticism, object relations, aesthetics, Critical Theory, political, contemporary visual culture, more, shed new light on the practice of socially engaged art? I think so.

Critical Utopias offer infinite potentialities.

METHODOLOGY: Critical theory. Dialectics. Autoethnographic – autobiography and ethnography – process AND product. Discourse analysis. Longitudinal studies. Short intensive discussions. Fragments of conversation. Gather artefacts, mementos, memories along the way.

Mountains of field notes.

Research subjects become in some ways objects: The Stove, Dumfries; Alex White-Mazzarella, global; Encounters, Totnes; Ovalhouse, London; Platform London.

Different trajectories. Similar practices AND uniquely different. All struggling to make art in an increasingly economics-driven field. Committed to being part of this research, we can all learn from each other.

PRESENTATIONS: ArtWorks conference at BALTIC, Warwick University, The Stove, and Arts Council England in London, more.

I’m lecturing at London Met and (hopefully) other universities in the autumn. I tweet. Blog.

We’re all (self) propagandists nowadays.

FIRST PAPER: A View is Always Worth It: Social Practice in Rural North East England, will be published by Taylor Francis in the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy in August.

TOM MOYLAN: “Critical utopian discourse becomes a seditious expression of social change and popular sovereignty carried out on in a permanently open process of envisioning what is not yet.”

The art world is an incredibly staid, unequal place. And art’s potentialities – like all things in life – always lie around its margins – in spaces (perhaps not yet created) where tension is always a welcome and frequent (re) visitor.

HERBERT MARCUSE: “The transcendence of immediate reality shatters the reified objectivity of established social relations and opens a new dimension of experience: rebirth of the rebellious subjectivity.”

ART AND INEQUALITY

Can art ever be truly equal? (Can anything?) Or, is art always about inequity; unfairness; elitism?

As a Critical Theorist, capitalism is always inherently unequal; insidiously alienating.

Art as commodity. Artist as a profession - division of labour. These sorts of things threaten creativity. Replacing society with individualism; with competition for resources THEY say are in short supply.

THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE, they say.

I say THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES! There are many alternatives. Tiny little alternatives. OUR alternatives. Different. NOT THEIR’S.

WE LIVE IN ONE OF THE WORLD MOST UNEQUAL COUNTRIES. Neoliberalism encourages inequality. Divide and rule. We are all increasingly, often unknowingly complicit…

Because, after all…

We’re all consumers nowadays.

Ours is a material world.

Capital is everything.

Economic value. Social value. Cultural value. Social Return on Investment. Impact. Innovation. Evaluation. Matrices. Big data. Wellbeing. Happiness. Resilience. Adaptive resilience. Sustainability. Philanthropy. Leadership. Quality. Great art. Excellence. Money. Money. Money! More and more and more…

… Oh, and CUTS!

Austerity is such a terrible word.

But, wait a minute… The Art World’s such a lovely place, isn’t it? Great Art and Culture For Everyone v2.0 anyone? The pink book? State produced bible to salve all society’s ills. Bring us all together? Art for all?

Not if THOSE IN THE KNOW have their way.

Can arts and culture think beyond economics and (nicely) enforced state policy? Beyond spurious ecosystem models. Beyond ‘making the right investments’?

SU BRADEN: “What is financed… is still seen by THEM as a means by which more people will be encouraged to enjoy and appreciate the arts on which the majority of money is already spent.”

She was talking about community art. Who get’s to decide. Limited participation.

So let’s put PARTICIPATION ON TRIAL…

Everyone’s a ‘participant’ nowadays. Aren’t THEY?

Or, following the Warwick Commission’s report on The Future of Cultural Value and its magic number – 8% – should I say WE – members of the cultural class?

Participation in the arts lacks real meaning.

Wander into a gallery, watch a play, help set up a festival, dig up a beach looking for fool’s gold, clog dance on cross-shaped shipping containers in the name of Christ, write memoirs in a timber sanctuary then watch it burn (physically and/or digitally), oh, and praise be the lanterns!

Then there’s socially engaged art, ecologically engaged art, activist art – marginal – issue-based – commonly working for social justice.

So why do I find the ‘participation in the arts’ agendas – and participatory arts in particular – so troubling, so divisive?

I suggest participation lacks intent.

For many policy makers, commissioners, arts organisations, artists, and so on, the more fun the activity, the less socially or politically engaged, the better.

PARTICIPATION BY NUMBERS. Count ‘them’. Lots of ‘disadvantaged’ people – great! Segregate them. Categorise. NEETS, ethnic minorities, older people, physically impaired, mentally ill, on and on and on. Measure them. See – they have improved! Thank The State for sending us an artist (backed by hidden ranks of arts administrators, of course). Look – all ‘their’ woes are gone. Take happy pictures for websites and Facebook and glossy publications. Pair them with a narrative penned for a pretty penny by the consultant or academic-led elite. Add graphs, tables, carefully edited anecdotes from ‘real people’ who loved taking part. Pie charts. Sprinkle spurious references to a too-oft-cited weakly defined canon. Make a film. Cost benefit analysis. Bravo! Keeps the funders happy. Useful evidence for future projects. Splendid.

Or is it? The trouble is participation in the arts – participatory arts – are products of insidious instrumentalism. State and funder-led initiatives hoping to wash away ‘their’ troubles, ‘their’ sins with a bit of taking part in some art. Sanitised, professionalised, risk-assessed to within an inch of existence. Best practice. Toolkits. Reports. Evaluations. Metrics. Big data. Fodder for never ending quasi-academic discussions about participation at which most participants are… well… people like us.

STATUS QUO. Hidden behind shallow dialogic frameworks. Another neoliberal veneer. Allowing dominant power structures to be reproduced and maintained.

Dialogic exercises and even ‘radical listening’ embed as cornerstones in participatory arts’ mission of improving practice and quality – ‘professionalising’ artists.

Anyone for CPD? Join with us. Sing ‘The Dialogic Song’. MISSIONARY ZEAL. Preach to the converted. Spread ‘our’ message. PARTICIPATE NOW! (Not ‘us’, them. New people.)

CONVERT TO ARTS PARTICIPATION NOW! (It’s something to do. Might get you a job. Might improve your wellbeing. Might improve the economy. Might even be FUNPALACES fun!)

Keeps the funders happy anyway.

IMPOSE BEST PRACTICE NOW.

Funders love it. Dovetail into burgeoning business plans.

FILE UNDER OUTREACH OR EDUCATION.

Organisations employ artists nowadays, don’t they?

They allow ‘participation’ into their programming – sometimes.

Voiceless artists should be grateful for meagre scraps as payment for their labour.

Hurrah! Complicit in the division of their labour, the institutions cheer as they further alienate artists from art!

BBC GET CREATIVE!

New Labour shuffled in neoliberal governance. Public money bought new Creative Industries citadels replete with artist and audience and participant proof defences.

Yet the price for artistic excellence is high; the pact always Faustian.

PARTICIPATION FOR ALL. Deeply divisive. Soft neoliberal governance. MERCENARIES.

Artists always bottom of the pile. Squashed silent by the tentacles of instrumentalism. With few rights and little money, who can blame artists for taking the bait?

MOBILISE. Artists and communities can mobilise for social justice. Self-organise. Art can counter the instrumentalism of state and institutions. A different, freer form of participation. Socially engaged art. Activism.

Academics and agents of the state tend to steer clear. No wonder. Social practice opposes neoliberalism in all its guises. We want change. WE ARE NOT GUILTY!

So, I suggest that participation in the arts and the trivialising forms of participatory arts practice that feed like parasites from fillets of newly institutionalised participatory arts programming are guilty of a terrible crime:

PARTICIPATING IN THE NEOLIBERAL PROJECT OF INDIVIDUALISM. THEIR ILLUSORY RAINBOW CLOAK OF ARTS AND CREATIVE INDUSTRIES SHOULD NOT FOOL YOU. LOOK CAREFULLY. IT IS ANOTHER CRUDE APPROPRIATION OF THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES. A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE.

HORKHEIMER AND ADORNO: “All reification is a forgetting.”

WHAT IS SOCIAL PRACTICE?

Little creative acts of not knowing.

Political, sometimes radically activist, acts.

Potential spaces. Safe places where dangerous new realities might grow. Grassroots. Social justice. Collective. Autonomous. Communal.

Deeply suspicious of instrumentalism and state. Outside of institutions. Around and across margins.

A practice in which art as concept is everywhere.

Unspoken, like innumerable tiny little secrets shared in moments outside the false strictures of coordinated civic time.

Uncertain.

Always uncertain…

Messes of thread.

Thank you.