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...

‘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…)

Twitter3211e8f

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?

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…

http://pablohelguera.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/portada-esea.jpg

 

 

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

Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?

MAP1_TUCSON-AND-PARIS_pop

Participatory arts or, more precisely, socially engaged arts practice is resurgent. Participation in the arts is, like many times in the past since the Victorian era, being promoted as a panacea for many of the issues facing our communities.  New initiatives such as ArtWorks, Cultural Value Project and Participation & Engagement in the Arts seek a sea change in UK cultural and educational settings.  Research around if and how socially engaged art can ever be truly sustainable at grassroots levels within the communities it seeks to serve is, however, a bit more thin on the ground.

A key value of arts participation is its ability to stimulate creativity within communities developing social capital in so doing.  There are many examples of socially engaging arts projects that, having achieved short-term success, were not sustained.  Clearly, attempts to create social change in communities must focus on both people and places.  As Roberto Bedoya explains so well, participatory art needs to find ways to embed creativity within communities and engage the many disparate elements that define them but UK research in this area is limited and, where existent (like in the recent RSA project in Peterborough), localised.

I believe we need to explore new ways in which participation in art, creativity and place can link to become part of people’s everyday lives, integral to our communities, encouraging long-term social change.  To do this, it may be necessary to completely rethink our current structures for arts provision, to engage people in new ways, to relinquish control, to trust communities more, and a whole lot of other things too.  Sustainability has different meanings and there are many ways to attempt to stimulate sustainable ways of doing things.

This is what I will write about in a series of posts in the coming weeks.  I will ask a number of questions and propose some ways forward.  My immediate thoughts are that participation in the arts may be able to support broader social change in constructive and sustainable ways and that creativity of action and thought may somehow become integral to the futures of people, places and communities.  How this can be developed is uncertain and probably controversial.  We shall see…