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

WP_20151110_14_33_25_Pro 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...