This is a little part of a draft section of my PhD thesis. It examines Creative People and Places, particularly, their People, Place, Power: Increasing Arts Engagement conference, suggesting empowerment may not be all it's cracked up to be, especially when 'delivered' by state-sanctioned, instrumentalising arts organisations and artists - the foot soldiers of state social art provision...Read More
This is a copy of my abstract submitted for the forthcoming Creative People and Places conference entitled (unbelievably) People, Place, Power. It was rejected. Perhaps it was not academic enough or badly written? Or perhaps it might have been a little challenging for some panel members? Anyway, I stand by my words...Read More
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...
Doctor Faustus in a magic circle, Woodcut, 1648
I have always been perplexed when people talk of “quality”. It’s a strangely powerful word, given that it is essentially neutral. Colloquially, people say things like, “He’s a quality player,” meaning that the person has an excellent footballing attribute (or attributes): goal scoring, tackling, whatever. In science and philosophy, a quality is one element amongst a host of attributes (or qualities) that make up an entity – each quality can be good, bad, etc. In business, quality refers to fitness for purpose, defined by a company in relation to their chosen target market’s expectations; it is often qualified, internally, by judgments of what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable”. Clearly, the word “quality” has different interpretations in different situations but always requires qualification. So, when I hear the term used in discussions about art or artistic practice, especially when delivered without qualification, I always shrug.
Let’s be honest, quality in art usually means (and is usually qualified as meaning) “excellent” (or at least “good”). When used without qualification, quality still implies “good” or “excellent”, so why not be honest? Well, we live in times when “excellence” can sound elitist so, perhaps, it’s best not to say as much. We also use quality to refer to an aspect of a work of art in relation to its other qualities. There are qualities in art objects and art processes. And, of course, we’re well aware of the creeping managerialism that seeks to standardise arts practice with the aim of professionalising the arts (and artists). This is good for funders and policymakers and good for academia but not necessarily for artists. And what field of the arts is most prone to attempts at standardisation and professionalisation? Participatory arts. So, when I saw Quality in Participatory Art by ex-Helix Arts Chief Exec, Toby Lowe, on the #culturalvalue initiative website, I was intrigued (Lowe, 2015). This blog post attempts to critically respond to some of the perspectives raised in the essay in the form of a discourse analysis.
The #culturalvalue initiative curator Eleonora Belfiore introduces the essay by situating “quality” as “… a key criterion to establish where funding should be directed” (Belfiore, 2015). She immediately follows this by asking: “What is ‘quality’? What does it look like? How can we recognize it? And who has the authority to decide what is of quality?” (ibid.). I think this seemingly naïve position masks her understanding of and role within the debate. Belfiore makes this clear by placing “quality” amongst the “fundamental questions of arts policy” – a place “where discussions of cultural value usually run aground” (ibid.). She then points out that, although widely referred to by “policy makers and funders”, they “shy away from defining” what constitutes “quality” in the arts (ibid.). I wonder how this allegedly ill-defined term can be considered, as Belfiore does, “a key concept in cultural policy” (ibid.)? Surely, policy should be built on firm foundations, not the slippery mudflats of an artistic estuary with many aesthetic tributaries? I contest that cultural policy makers know full-well what they mean by “quality”. They mean “excellent”, “good” or “high”. These are dangerous words in today’s publicly funded arts world; close to the supposedly bygone days of a “few but roses”. It is also worth mentioning that when quality is qualified as “excellent”, etc., it creates a dialectic: for every “excellent” there must be (at least one) “poor”; some “fit for purpose” and others “defective”; “acceptable” and “unacceptable”.
Nonetheless, Toby Lowe boldly attempts to make a case for “quality” in “participatory art” – another poorly defined term, as we shall perhaps see…
Lowe begins by stating that “quality” will inevitably be part of the cultural value debate “because we are bound to value the cultural experiences which we feel are good” (Lowe, 2015). It is immediately apparent that he equates “quality” with “good experiences” (ibid.). I wonder, however, if it is possible that “we” (itself a slippery term as we shall see later) and other audience members and participants might also find value in experiences we do not make us feel “good”? Are we really only seeking the “good” in arts and culture? Lowe then suggests “quality in any arts discipline” is often subjective (ibid.). I couldn’t agree more. Yet, once again, “quality” is portrayed as a single entity rather than a host of attributes. Furthermore, need these “qualities” always be subjective?
We then come to a definition of “participatory arts”. Lowe describes it as: “meaning the range of arts practice in which an artist (of any medium) facilitates a creative process with people” (ibid.). This is an exceptionally broad definition and, as a result, deeply problematic – vague. Owen Kelly warned in 1984 about the dangers of a “‘strategy of vagueness’” the left the community arts movement to be increasingly “led by the funding agencies” (Kelly, 1984, p. 23). Lowe, in his open definition, mimics the non-definition arrived at Harold Baldry’s The Report of the Community Arts Working Party, commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1974. The Baldry Report became “the foundation of the Art Council’s policy towards community arts” until at least 1984 (Kelly, 1984, p. 15) and, arguably, still remains pretty much in place today. It is here worth remembering that “community art” was reinvented in the 1990s as a “seemingly-innocuous alternative, ‘participatory arts’” (Matarasso, 2013, p. 1). For François Matarasso, this transition signalled a move “from the politicised and collectivist action of the seventies towards the depoliticised, individual-focused arts programmes supported by public funds in Britain today” (Matarasso, 2013, pp. 1-2). I could not agree more. Furthermore, “participatory arts”, as is clear from Lowe’s ambiguous (non-)classification, can be considered “neutral and descriptive” – little more than “a method applied to all other forms” (Matarasso, 2013, pp. 6-7). I wonder, then, how “participatory arts” practice can, when so broadly “defined”, attempt to begin to describe work within the field as “quality” (meaning, as I have already mentioned, “excellent” or “good”)?
According to Lowe, “participatory arts is the artistic discipline that most frequently asks the question: ‘who gets to make art?’” (Lowe, op. cit.). Expanding on this assertion, Lowe explains that participatory arts:
speaks most regularly of the importance of equality in the cultural voice that people have: who gets to represent themselves authentically within our culture? And if the people who are asking these questions aren’t also having conversations about what good work looks like, then the practice that is done in their name will soon become stale and uninteresting (ibid.).
I wonder who is speaking here. Who asks the questions: “Who gets to make art?”, “Who gets to represent themselves authentically within our culture?” and “What does good work look like?” Who really gets to “speak” for and on behalf of the disciplinary field of participatory arts? Of course, artists ask these questions frequently but, in the context of cultural policy, they are, perhaps, questions posed by policymakers, academics and ‘arts leaders’ – now well-versed in drowning artists’ voices. What about the public and participants? I don’t believe “they” ask these questions very often (if at all). Also, I’m not entirely sure if “the practice that is done in their name” refers to participants, artists, policymakers, academics, arts leaders, or some, or all. Lowe’s ambiguous statement seems to relate to participatory arts practice doing art in the name of someone; perhaps ‘the people’? I contend that participatory arts are often “done to them” (participants, non-arts people) by us - well-meaning artists or instrumentally rational institutions (arts organisations, funders, policymakers, academics, etc.)
Lowe’s contention that “the massive inequality of art-making opportunity” must be addressed by improving access to the arts for “those who have least access to cultural capital” (ibid.) is commonly accepted by many in today’s field of arts and culture; certainly nothing new; virtually uncontested. Yet, positing that “those who have the least… deserve the best” (ibid.) is unusual. Is Lowe here suggesting that everyone deserves to “get to work with the best artists”, using “the best equipment and materials, because their stories matter” (ibid.), or just those most culturally disadvantaged? I support, of course, the need for cultural democracy within arts and culture. The field is still far too unequal – elitist. But should we really be striving for abstract notions such as “the best”? What is “the best”? Who defines it? I wonder if Lowe is unintentionally speaking for them, “the people”, in a rather paternalistic manner, on behalf of (some) of us.
In situating participatory arts as a practice often aligned to (or even, I contest, directed by) social policy, Lowe illustrates how “debate in this area has become infected with the notion that you can judge the quality of the work by the outcomes it produces” (ibid.). The capitulation of participatory arts into little more than art as a form social work has a long history and is deeply problematic. That “quality” is judged by outcomes when working towards goals driven by social policy is inevitable – a Faustian pact that will always end in fiery torment. Of course, there are other ways to define and measure (or experience and know) “quality” or more “the qualities” of a particular work of art – object or process – but that is, perhaps, worthy of another more thorough debate. It is certainly not particularly well-addressed in Lowe’s essay. Instead, he moves quickly to ask “what do we need to do put this right?” (ibid.). The answers, for Lowe, lie in understanding that it’s “critical reflection that makes our practice better” because it’s the “only way we can learn and improve” (ibid.).
Here, we begin to notice the discussion about “quality” morphing into the realm of “best practice” replete with peer reflection tools, “group crits”, open conversations. Nothing wrong with these techniques, but I wonder if Lowe’s approach is not veering here toward the dialogic. Participatory arts is a field fond of dialogic open conversation. Perhaps it is this type of approach that leads Lowe to lament: “Too much of previous discussion about what quality practice looks like in participatory arts has melted away…” (ibid.). His solution is to carefully document the “critical conversations”. But note that “best practice” has shifted again to become “quality practice”. Surely Lowe is talking about good (or best) quality practices here? Do practitioners need this? Well, it depends on whether we want or need more toolkits and better best practice guides. I’m not sure all (or most) artists do and, given the complex relational dynamics between artist and participants and between participants themselves that are so critical to the participatory arts process, whether it will be possible to ‘define’ anything other than a range of necessarily homogenous qualities. What would they then be used for and by whom?
Finally, Lowe summarises key aspects from his own report entitled Critical Conversations: Artists’ reflections on quality in participatory arts practice (Lowe, 2014). Starting with the “theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of participatory practice, which link to relational and dialogical aesthetics”, Lowe goes on to identify authenticity, “rigour”, “good participatory work”, “quality materials and equipment”, “professionalism and rigour”, “rigour, discipline, and professionalism”, amongst an extensive list of characteristics derived from a series of critical conversations with artists. For me, many of these words are reminiscent of management-speak that, whilst undoubtedly important elements of practice, lack any distinction or any form of critical analysis. For Lowe openness is important. He ends his essay by stating:
The more we are each able to be open about the complex judgements we make, and the uncertainties we feel about those judgements, the better all our work will be (ibid.).
I have big problems with “judgements”: a term laden with inferences of power – whether certain or uncertain. Nonetheless, Lowe seems to conclude by suggesting that openness will make participatory arts practice “better” – not “best” nor “excellent” nor “good” – not even “quality”. I conclude that Lowe’s essay actually describes a host of qualities that, whilst often unqualified or misleading qualified, offer insight into the vast array of attributes that affect the process and product of working in participatory arts. It is, however, important to note that what we see in this essay is participatory arts practice in all its anything goes, apolitical finery. There are other, more radical, more issue-based forms of practice in this field – for example, socially engaged art. Whilst socially engaged practice shares many characteristics (dare I say qualities) with participatory practice, the focus is much more sharp; the suspicions of institutions and policies far more acute. For me, this is a distinction I am exploring in my on going PhD research and in my practice. Rest assured, there will be no attempt to define “the quality of socially engaged art”!
 For more information about the Baldry Report, see Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels (Kelly, 1984, pp. 15-20)
 For more about the transition from “community art” to “participatory arts”, see All in this together: The depoliticisation of community art in Britain, 1970-2011 (Matarasso, 2013)
 For detailed analysis of the alignment with art and social work, see, for example, Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels (Kelly, 1984)
I was asked to present a brief précis of my current research at Northumbria University last week. I thought it might be of interested to some people. So here it is. It’s an edited version of the presentation. The images are a mix of my own, from my case studies and old film stills.
It is first perhaps worth explaining that this is my second year of research-based doctoral study.
As well as being a PhD candidate, I’m also a socially engaged arts practitioner and a curator with as strong a literary background as art historical. I like to create, write, think, antagonise, agonise – although not necessarily in that order. For me, my research is practice; my practice is research. There are clear boundaries, blurring only occasionally, perhaps shifting a little with and against my research. This is good. For me potentiality often lies around the margins, where tension is an always welcome guest.
I began my research in October 2013 with a question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change? Why? Because I was immersed within the field of participatory (or socially engaged) arts (I still am) and I was agonising over the encroachment of policy-led, New Public Management Newspeak into my practice and, indeed, the broader arts world… ‘Evidence’, ‘resilience’, ‘cultural value’, ‘economic value’, ‘inclusion’, ‘exclusion’, ‘diversity’, ‘sustainability’, ‘well-being’, ‘outputs’, ‘outcomes’ – on and on… Creeping instrumentalism. Even seemingly positive words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘social change’ suddenly became murky through ubiquity. My question can be simply modified to become a statement – a mantra – for many interested in this field: PARTICIPATORY ART SUPPORTS SUSTAINABLE SOCIAL CHANGE. Really?
The research question seems as it is: superficial. What are ‘participatory arts’? A homogenous entity? Or does the term represent a broad range of artists working with a myriad of artistic practices spanning everything from face painting to radical political activism? What is ‘participation’ anyway? And does the term ‘socially engaged art’ or, even, ‘social practice’ better describe certain forms of issue-based, independently determined making art together with people? Similarly, ‘sustainability’ can take many forms from ecological concerns to maintaining narrow art world status quos ushered in by an allegedly well-meaning Maynard Keynes. The paramount question about ‘sustainability’ is: Whose sustainability? Who or what is being sustained, by whom, for what purpose? And, of course: What is the role of the state? Does ‘social change’ relate to state agendas and issues of power? Could notions of ‘social justice’ provide an ethical alternative?
‘Participatory arts’ were spurned from the ashes of the Community Arts movement. A lack of self-organisation and theoretical grounding for their multi-faceted approaches to working with people left them open to incorporation by the state on the one (inclusive) hand and marginalisation by the state on the (radically political) other. Arts policy played an ever-increasing part in this – it still does. Nonetheless, socially engaged art developed on the margins of the 1990s art world to represent, perhaps, a return to more radical forms of working with people. Some call it ‘the latest thing’ – it is not! The field’s historical and political contexts are deeply rich; profoundly influencing many of today’s socially engaged artists. If this history is interesting to you, I recommend you read Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels by Owen Kelly (1984)…
SO WHAT’S MY ANGLE?
I am trying to align past and present theory with current socially engaged practice. By exploring and interrelating theoretical and practical perspectives, I hope to illuminate the field of socially engaged practice AND influence current policymakers. The notion of Critical Utopias forms a locus for my research. Taking Herbert Marcuse’s The End of Utopias as a starting point, I’m exploring the notion that utopia was a derogatory term used as a tool for suppression and control. Yet, when reawakened and set free, utopian thinking might, perhaps, offer real potential for emancipation from the dominant neoliberalism paradigm. For Tom Moylan, tracing a vein similar to the utopianism of Paulo Freire:
The critical utopias give voice to an emerging radical perception and experience that emphasize process over system, autonomous and marginal activity over the imposed order of a centre, human liberation over white/ phallocentric control, and the interrelationships of nature of human chauvinism… The critical utopias refuse to be restricted by their own traditions, their own systematizing content…
(Moylan, 1986, p. 211)
These perspectives align very closely to critically engaged forms of participatory and social arts practice.
WHAT’S MY APPROACH?
My approach is rooted within forms of critical theory that emanate from, but do not fully subscribe to, the Critical Theory of The Frankfurt School. Interdisciplinary in nature, my research attempts to fuse a range of theoretical perspectives, taking the following key tenets of critical theory as points of departure: the belief that our current socio-political life is dominated by a neoliberal democracy that is both a ‘total administration’ (Adorno) and ‘one-dimensional’ (Marcuse); the conflation of diverse forms of arts and culture into a ‘culture industry’ is ‘enlightenment by mass deception’ (Horkheimer and Adorno); a deep mistrust of ‘instrumental rationality’ (Marcuse); and an eagerness to embrace and develop interdisciplinary research and practice in relation to critical theory (Horkheimer and Marcuse). Dialectics are central to my thinking. For me, they, along with many other elements in traditional and contemporary critical theory, offer new ways of understanding our current milieu; of (re)imagining alternatives to the suffocating cloak of neoliberalism.
There are too many other theoretical approaches to cite here. Suffice to say that they span the Marxist politics of, for example, Frederic Jameson and Chantal Mouffe to the psychoanalytic approaches of Jacques Lacan and Donald Winnicott. There are many paths to ‘playing’ and ‘reality’ (or realities). Compliance is not one.
So, from my original research question, and, like a good empirical researcher, I produced the following working hypothesis which I am testing and refining during my fieldwork:
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.
It is lengthy and wordy but useful to my research.
Critical theory can also be considered, in its weaker sense, a distinctive methodology based upon dialectics. Following this approach, my methodology rejects ‘the qualitative-quantitative distinction as a way of differentiating methodologies’ and is aware of and opposed to the problematic dominance of ‘societal demands for knowledge that can produce technical control’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994). It instead seeks ‘a theory of social and cultural reproduction’ that is ‘part of a process of social production’ whilst acknowledging the impossibility of ignoring ‘the history and systematic aspects of research’ (ibid.).
My methods are empirical - ethnographic. My investigation revolves around intensive field research that is autoethnographic - an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience to understand cultural experience. It challenges canonical ways of doing research and representing others, instead treating research as a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act. It uses tenets of autobiography and ethnography. As a method, autoethnography becomes both process and product.
(I then gave excerpts from my five longitudinal case studies. A mix of organisations and artists. They were presented as autoethnographic narrative. Reflections from my field notes. I have self-censored them for now…)
As well as the longitudinal case studies, I also have conducted and will undertake more informal discussions with people from across all areas of my research. Each session has a focus relevant to the person’s relationship to my research. Although short, these focused discussions form critical aspects of my overall thesis.
But there are also many fragments. Pieces of conversations with other artists, academics, arts organisations, policymakers, etc. that I collect along the way. They are usually the products of chance occurrence; fleeting words. They are incredibly stimulating and often serve to refocus or challenge my research in incredibly unpredictable ways.
I love collecting as many artefacts along my journey. Some are useful pieces of evidence; others mementos that may or may not stimulate some memory of past encounters. Unspoken meaning often lies dormant in these objects, waiting to find the right moment… Or perhaps not…
Of course, everything must be validated – verified. My field notes are ‘signed off’ by participants after they have read and made necessary corrections and amendments. This process is incredibly useful in developing relationships and maintaining or reinstating some degree of professional distance.
I hope my research will be of interest and value to academics, policymakers, socially engaged artists and arts organisations. My thesis will need to navigate a careful path so as to appeal to this diverse range of people. Perhaps my autoethnographic approach will help make the research accessible?
And so, the next year or so of my life will be taken up intensively researching my longitudinal case studies, continuing to develop my focused discussions with other individuals and reading as much about the field, other relevant disciplinary approaches and theory as possible. Talking, experiencing, thinking, writing, reading, doing… Then writing up the final thesis.
My life as research…
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!
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…)
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?
This is my presentation for Paul Hamlyn ArtWorks North East ‘Pilots to Practice’ conference at BALTIC. I gave this as a PechaKucha – using a narrative performance style of delivery.
It’s about dot to dot active arts’ current project, ‘above ground level’, taking place in Blyth, Northumberland.
Please make sure you use notes button at bottom right of window. So you can see my narrative.
It was well received at the conference. I’d love your comments and feedback…
Click the pic or the link below to see the presentation…
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?
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…
This book offers a much more progressive approach to thinking about and learning about social practice…
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.
This blog post is a transcript of an interview that was never published. The interviewer asked five questions. I answered.
Can art be an effective way of bringing about social change? If so, any examples? In what ways can it improve people's lives?
There are many in the arts world who believe art can deliver social change. Arts Council England recently published The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: an evidence review (April 2014), an attempt to make the case for art and culture in terms of benefits to the economy, health and wellbeing, society and education. They’re following a trend in arts and culture towards ‘cultural value’ – attempting to measure and evidence the instrumental values; this is similar to their discussion of intrinsic values described in their Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experiences: a literature review (July 2014). There are many actors involved in the broader cultural value debate including AHRC, The RSA, The University of Warwick Commission, etc. Meanwhile, Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s ArtWorks initiative and AHRC’s Connected Communities are two examples of the many academic collaborations with arts organisations and artists to also investigate the social value of the arts. In short, the debate about art as a vehicle for social change is as vast as it is fluid.
However, it’s not a new debate. Francois Matarasso is perhaps best known for fathering the idea of ‘art as panacea for all society’s ills’ in his influential text Use or Ornament? The social impact of participation in the arts (1997). His report led to a dearth of New Labour initiatives attempting to use arts and cultural projects as cures for everything from run-down urban streets to the unemployed; from rehabilitating offenders to improving the grades of low-performing inner city school children. New Labour’s promotion of arts and culture as integral to their ‘things can only get better’ utopian dream collided with their embracing of technocratic forms of governance underpinned by a positivist scientific measuring and evidencing of every aspect of society. The resulting target-driven, cost-benefit culture meant that Matarasso was criticised for not producing enough (or any) evidence to underpin the many claims he made for the role of arts and culture as a mechanism for positive social change…
So, here we are in 2014. There’s renewed interest and belief in the power of the arts and culture to be recognised as an effective engine for social change. Not just in the UK, but worldwide. Cultural policies around the globe are being honed to embed art and culture as a key aspect of supporting and delivering the agendas of almost every government department and non-government organisation. The problem with this perspective, for me, is three-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, the type of social change being sought here is always state-led and thereby fraught with political and economic agendas, meaning the arts will always be instrumental; beautifully crafted, state-funded tools, imposing the type of soft power that typically underpins neoliberal agendas. Secondly, there is the question of ‘what is social change?’ Arguably anything: Good or bad; emancipatory or totalitarian; always ideological; never likely to result in paradigm-shift. Recycling household waste is social change; but then so is Nazism. Thirdly, artists, participants, audiences and people who do not engage with the arts are usually not consulted or placed at the heart of policy-making of any kind, including cultural policy. This means that they are often left disenfranchised by cultural policies ‘done to them’, not ‘with and for them’. For me, notions of social justice offers more interesting perspectives about fairness and equality. It leaves space for self-organising, radicalism and reimagining.
In some senses, my answer may seem negative or evasive. It is not. I’m merely voicing my concerns. I am wary of grand narratives, of positivism, of state control… The arts have been used very effectively to implement all sorts of state agendas for time immemorial, but they have also been equally effective in opposing the state. I also know that people who engage in arts and cultural activities (whether ‘high’ or ‘popular’ culture) on every level gain insight and experience that is essential to living. Everyone is an example.
Do artists have a responsibility to respond to the social issues that people are concerned about?
An interesting question that immediately prompts memories of the old debate about ‘art for arts’ sake’ versus ‘art as social’. Artists respond to whatever intrigues them in whatever way they see fit. This is an essential element of their quasi-autonomous position in our world. In some cases, artists respond directly to political issues as radical activists, whilst other artists respond to social issues in ways that support political positions and policy. Others are happy painting watercolour seaside themes ad infinitum. Nothing wrong with any of this. All are matters of individual choice and circumstance. No artist has a duty to respond to social issues, although because artists are situated within society, their art is always to one degree or another socially constructed.
Anyway, ‘social issues that people are concerned about’ sounds like another grand narrative. What are these issues and who are concerned about them?
What are the most challenging aspects of working in the area of socially engaged art?
Socially engaged art is, for me, a very freeing mode of working with people and art. Social practice often takes place outside of galleries and in public places; its emphasis is on process and experience rather than aesthetics and autonomy. But this way of working creates positives and tensions. It’s a challenge to self-organise with little money; a challenge to not know who will turn up or what might happen; a challenge to not impose (or, more realistically, to minimise) positions of power within the dynamics of a socially engaged intervention so that the participants can develop a process their way. Social practice is about risk and uncertainty. It’s fun to be able to work independently but also a constant struggle. These challenges (and, probably, many more) are what makes the field so liberating for practitioners and (hopefully) participants.
Is there a way that artists can ensure they create meaningful relationships with local communities?
Tough question. Many practitioners, policy-makers and academics tend to believe that meaningful relationships with communities need to be developed slowly and carefully. I believe that short-term grassroots interventions can create ‘meaningful relationships’ (difficult to define) within communities. I also firmly assert that long-term embedding of artists in communities can be dangerous and not necessarily conducive to fostering creative independence within communities. I’ve been accused of ‘parachuting in’ many times – whether the intervention lasted a day or three months. Interestingly, these accusations always come from other local artists and arts organisations, never from local people who take part. This leads me to conceive of the role of the socially engaged artist as always that of ‘outsider’ (unless the person actually lives in the area, in which case, there are a whole load of other problems likely to arise). As outsiders, we must always be aware that we are privileged and that we can only help others find and make new potential spaces in which they may discover something about themselves that they can hopefully feed into their communities. We do this by being open to the new and by being ‘grassroots’ in our approach – never elitist or aloof. We develop close affinities, often in very short periods of time, and hopefully retain memories that remain with us, but we will always leave. We must…
How is socially engaged art perceived in the art world as a whole?
Many see the practice as ‘not art’ or as amateurish or political or radical or as an instrument for soft state control. All these condemnations are, sometimes, undoubtedly true. The field of socially engaged practice as ‘participation’ is broad, spanning everything from face-painting to Occupy. This is both a strength and a weakness. Also, the interdisciplinary nature of some practices means that boundaries are often blurred between art, science, politics, environmentalism, etc., etc. I think this inability to neatly box socially engaged art is exciting for practitioners but threatening for many traditional arts organisations and artists; it is also confusing for many policy-makers and academics. People taking part do not care what we call what we do. We don’t label our work. For participants, we’re us – people who listen and help them do creative stuff, or challenge people to think differently, to think more…
In my view, any attempt to accredit or institutionalise socially engaged art means it’s no longer ‘socially engaged’ but ‘participatory’. It’s socially engaged art’s ability to challenge status quos, even work with others to radically challenge the state, from positions independent from the state that makes the practice interesting and attractive to more and more artists as a viable way of making art with people rather than for organisations.
#FolkestoneGold. Popular and extremely newsworthy. People digging for little chunks of gold on the beach in Folkestone is certainly an arts marketing dream; a boon for this year’s Folkestone Triennial. Folkestone Digs was commissioned by new Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation Situations and produced by Berlin-based artist Michael Sailstorfer. But what does this public art work say about ‘participatory art’? Is it a ‘gold rush’ or cold exploitation? When the veil of secrecy was first lifted on Folkestone Digs, I felt cold and uncomfortable…
Then lyrics from my youth by The Stone Roses shuffled about somewhere inside:
I'm standing alone
I'm watching you all
I'm seeing you sinking
I'm standing alone
You're weighing the gold
I'm watching you sinking
Earlier now. The early 1980s. Unemployment. Riots. Thatcher. Grey… No. Not everything was grey, was it?
Not summer holidays away from my Jarrow home stripped bare once and forever by industry-killing, North loathing Tories!
Memories of Blackpool, Scarborough, Filby (near Great Yarmouth); Butlins, Pontins, other less uniform caravan parks. I remember now…
Crap pirate boat trips to cheap play sand islands floating on worn out re-treads in sludgy pools no deeper than knee-high to an eight-year old. Cardboard palms, polyester sateen ‘slops’, wiry nylon ringlet wigs and drawn-on market-stall mascara beards. Searching for Hong Kong doubloons on ‘organised’ summer holiday activities for the kids.
I loved it! Wanted more. I was a swashbuckling buccaneer. The plastic cutlass my dad bought me soon became a cherished souvenir. (Until next year.)
Summer holidays 2014 are almost over. A new ‘participatory artwork’ was grabbing media attention. Not just the arts media either. Wow! An artist had hidden 30 pieces of gold worth £10,000 under the beach at Folkestone. Hmm… Apparently, it’s a game of ‘finders, keepers’! People who don’t do art are, well, doing art. They’re digging for gold. Plastic buckets and spades for the kids, garden-standard hardware for the adults, and dusted down metal detectors for the, erm, metal detectors.
And other obvious (like this blog’s title), glimmeringly superficial phrases.
Straplines and copy heralded this new public artwork as ‘participatory art’. The curator, Lewis Biggs, said: "It is a participatory artwork. It is about people coming to the beach and digging and possibly finding hidden treasure. Some people will get lucky, some people will not get lucky – and that's life." This, for me, seemed worrying. Searching for dog-tag sized bars of 24-carat gold. (Ooh! ‘They may be more valuable as art works than if traded-in at ‘We Buy Any Gold’, etc. etc.) A curator who thinks participation is about some people winning whilst others lose is a metaphor for life? I could go on. You get the gist.
Folkestone Digs is undeniably art. We say it is, so it is! It is also participatory. But then so is gambling in local bookies, sitting in traffic jams on the M6, rioting – most things…
For me, it’s the cynically exploitative undertones of this art work that concerns me; the monetisation of participatory experience; the lack of any depth to the work other than the position of each piece of metal in relation to the surface of the sand. These types of ‘participatory art’ are becoming commonplace. They are not about social justice or dialogic approaches or co-producing. This is artist-led. Aesthetic. Art as treasure map. This is a different form of participation in the arts from the type of social and ecological practices I am interested in. The only ideology this type of ‘participatory-lite’ art espouses is capitalism.
A bloke turns up with a JCB. Somehow, by stealth or corruption, he digs up the whole beach and carts it away, taking all but one, it is later revealed, of the golden art works with him. They are never found. Neither is the one that got away…
Where’s my old family Polaroid folder?
This blog post is explores elements of my doctoral research exploring the question of whether participatory art can support sustainable social change. It’s taken from some of the writing in the introduction to my second draft literature review…
Click the image above to see a database of more than 350 socially engaged arts projects.
Participatory art is said by many to be a growing field. As a practice, it adopts numerous forms and crosses many boundaries. Participatory art is often, but not always, implicated in narratives surrounding personal and social change, either directly through public policy, or indirectly through the statements of individual socially engaged artists. Socially engaged art interventions are often short-term and limited in scope and scale. This leads to questions about whether such approaches should or can be sustained. It also leads to an expanded field in which participatory art may be increasingly separate from social practice. (This is a BIG question which I will discuss in later posts.)
My starting point here is Creative Time’s Chief Curator and important influencer of US social practice, Nato Thompson’s declaration in Living as Form that socially engaged art ‘is growing and ubiquitous’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 19). But does this statement really reflect the history of this field of practice? If socially engaged art is, as Thompson claims, ‘growing’, in what ways, and to what and whose agendas? Is it really ‘ubiquitous’? Many practitioners in the field may well think otherwise. My literature review attempts to unpick chronologically, from the early 1980s onwards, whether socially engaged art is now virtually omnipresent within today’s art world as Thompson suggests.
The cross-disciplinary nature of socially engaged art and the individual experiences of participants and artists means that the field is hotly debated by policy-makers, critics, academics and large arts institutions. Artists, art workers and smaller collectives and organisations are often disenfranchised and, perhaps as a result, disinterested by attempts to investigate, document, define, regulate and even contest the field.
Researching the practice necessarily involves traversing a myriad of complementary and conflicting areas and perspectives. Questions revolve around aesthetics, instrumentalism, independence, community, place-making, economics, politics, policy, cultural value, evaluating and evidencing impact, outcomes for participants and society, individual experience, integration and sustainability. How does socially engaged art interface with and and reflect upon other disciplines such as sociology, pedagogy, education, health and wellbeing, psychology, regeneration, development, and ethnography? Can a further ‘expanded field’ that encompasses critical theory, participatory action research, notions of the carnivalesque, post-development theory, permaculture, and more, lead to fruitful routes to new insights about the nature of socially engaged art and its potential for alternative forms of meaningful individual and social change?
All of this is important for social practice. It can help to positively (re)define social practice – perhaps raise it’s profile in the arts. It can also provide a mechanism for those wishing to regulate and professionalise the practice. Research can also help maintain, even expand, independent practice, activism and radicalism – forming new ways for individual practitioners to work together to resist attempts to institutionalise the field (or certain elements within the ‘expanded field’). Nonetheless, research (mine very much included) can exclude the very artists, practitioners, workers and small/ embryonic organisations that form the heart of the field of social practice. It can also exclude participants and audiences. This is something I am keen to try to address. I do not really know how to avoid exclusion but I think I know exclusion when I see it…
This post is a first draft of part of my doctoral research methodology. I have been developing my thinking using a broad range of interdisciplinary approaches and theoretical perspectives that are both complementary and conflicting. This has led to the development of a research design founded on a working hypothesis that (hopefully) better expresses the nature of my research than the (deliberately ironic) research question might. Discussion of relevant theoretical approaches and methods will follow soon.
As always, comments and criticism are always encouraged…
Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?
The research question is obviously ambiguous; deeply problematic. This is intentional. It is undoubtedly a tricky question that alludes to the many critical issues facing the burgeoning field of ‘participation in the arts’. As described in greater detail below, this research is underpinned by critical theory that oscillates between the modernism of The Frankfurt School, its philosophical predecessors, and the critical aspects of postmodernism. In this sense, the research question can be read as an ironic representation of the complexities and abstruseness of our present socio-political milieu. A position perhaps mirrored by current manifestations of ‘the culture industry’ and by increasing state interventions into that field. The question mimics the ‘cultural newspeak’ that might emanate from today’s UK government departments and quasi-governmental organisations; developed vivaciously by arrayed policy-makers and advisory panels; repeated parrot-fashion by arts institutions and ‘arts leaders’. In this, perhaps flippant, sense, the answer to the research question is undoubtedly, ‘YES!’
However, this research does not aim to verify state claims for ‘participation in the arts’ as a panacea for all social (and, perhaps even, political) malady. It seeks to challenge these claims; to explore possible theoretical, ethical, political and practical alternatives that may shake the status-quo, maybe even fracture the present, ambiguous discourse around ‘participatory arts’. Clearly, then, it is essential that terms such as ‘participatory arts’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are coherently defined. These ambiguities are discussed at length in the literature review but it is important they are considered here so that the research has clear direction. To this end, there follows a series of statements about how this research defines what it is and what it is not interested in studying during the in-depth investigation of its chosen case studies. It is obvious, then, that the research question must be developed into a hypothesis that can be tested and refined during the research period. It is also worth noting that the research intention and hypothetical position have been discussed with the case study participants. It is, indeed, on the basis of the initial hypothesis and subsequent discussion around it that they agreed to contribute to this research.
Refining the research question
As mentioned above, the terms ‘participation’, ‘participatory art’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are incredibly slippery and multifarious. This section aims to briefly discuss some interpretations of these terms to illustrate how they are used to convey a myriad of meanings for an array of political, philosophical, scientific and ethical reasons. It then sets out to explicate the particular perspectives the research seeks to investigate as well as what it does not. At this point, it is important to be clear that the researcher does not wish to imply that the other interpretations are less valid or somehow inferior aspects of ‘participation in the arts’. They are simply different perspectives.
Looking first at ‘participatory art’, the term has been described by various people within the field of ‘the arts’, and with various interests in the field, very differently. Paola Merli, an academic interested in cultural policy, stated in 2002 that participatory art was used as ‘a form of governance’ by the UK government: a tool for ‘promoting social cohesion’; a ‘cultivated cultural activity’ rather than a ‘primary need’ (Merli, 2004 , pp. 17-21). Her position is developed from a critical attack on Francois Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? (1997) in which he describes participatory arts as being able to ‘contribute to social cohesion’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. vii). Whilst Merli is clearly suggesting that participatory art is an apparatus of state instrumentalism – a critical position shared by this research – Matarasso’s report suggests this instrumentalism is distinctly beneficial for both participants and government. However, Merli’s proposition, derived from Bourdieu, that participation in the arts is a ‘nicety’ that fosters cultural satisfaction is, whilst an undoubtedly valid position in many cases, narrow in that it leaves little room for radical, counter-hegemonic arts activism. The situation today is that the UK government and ‘arm’s length’ organisations such as Arts Council England are actively promoting the instrumental and economic benefits of participation in the arts more widely than at the time of the Merli/ Matarasso debate. Arts Council England list seventeen ‘activities’ they currently use for ‘arts-based segmentation analysis’ to define and measure ‘arts participation’ as part of their Taking Part surveys which seek to identify and characterise ‘distinct arts consumer types’ in the ‘arts market’ (Arts Council England a, 2014). Interestingly, all the listed activities involve doing and taking part in art. Participatory arts projects are not measured separately. Radical arts activities are not mentioned. Similarly, their recently published report about the benefits of arts to society is also incredibly vague about how they define ‘participation in the arts’ yet it extolls such activities as having many (equally loosely defined) intrinsic, instrumental and economic benefits (Arts Council England b, 2014). So it is clear, perhaps, that, not only is participation in the arts a very broadly defined set of possible activities that does not particularly value participatory or socially engaged projects as meriting specific categorisation or measurement, but it is also deemed to be an important ‘nicety’.
‘Sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are two other ill-defined aspects of the research question that must be clarified so that a working hypothesis can be constructed. Sustainability is commonly used to describe the need to maintain or improve biological and/ or human productivity and/ or diversity. It is also a term used to describe ideas or other systems that can be defended or upheld. The term is used to relate ‘sustainability’ to ‘ecosystems’ in which economic, social and biological factors are brought together with the aim of ‘developing’ areas of the ecosystem so as to guarantee the continuing of the whole. These factors were developed by the United Nations in 1987 in their Bruntland Report (United Nations, 1987). Interestingly, culture was added as a fourth factor for sustainability and, more recently, the word ‘political’ has replaced ‘social’. The Bruntland Commission definition of ‘sustainable development’ is still widely quoted, describing sustainable development as:
[D]evelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
(United Nations, 1987)
Sustainability is also a ‘hot topic’ in UK arts policy, although it is, perhaps, most frequently used in relation to the drive towards ‘organisational change’ and ‘adaptive resilience’ in the face of state-imposed cuts to arts funding. Ex-Arts Council England director Mark Robinson is one of the main proponents of this type of arts management interpretation of sustainability. His 2010 report Making adaptive resilience real clearly demonstrates this linkage of the term sustainability to change within the field of the arts, stating, for example, that:
all parts of the sector should collaborate to improve understanding of systems-thinking broadly, and resilience and sustainability issues specifically, through research, publication and debate, training and development
(Robinson, 2010, p. 46)
Clearly, then, ‘sustainability’ is as common in socio-economic development and management as it is in concepts of environmentalism.
Cultural economics researcher Diane Ragsdale challenges the idea that all arts organisations, and large unwieldy institutions in particular, should be sustained at any cost, especially at the expense of smaller, newer organisations and individual artist-led projects (Ragsdale, 2013). Her position is discussed further in the literature review. It is Ragsdale’s ‘bottom up’ contention that this research takes as a point of departure when considering notions around ‘sustaining’ socially engaged arts practice and social justice. Her perspectives align with the desire of this research to test if and how socially engaged arts movements may be able to be self-sustaining, continually diversifying and self-renewing. As such, it is inherently linked to concepts around developing ‘social justice’ rather than a universal notion of ‘social change’. It is possible to consider many shifts in how we live as representing social change. Industrialisation, capitalism, communism, Nazism, welfare reform, privatisation, credit cards, the internet – a few examples of social change. The term is problematic because it is bereft of any moral or ethical philosophical so that anything can be considered to be social change. Social justice, on the other hand, may be considered to be about fairness and equality; an opposition to injustice. As such, the research takes as its starting point the ‘three critical domains of equality and equity’ proposed by the United Nations in 2006 as essential to the notion of social justice: ‘equality of rights’; ‘equality of opportunities’; and ‘equity in living conditions’ (United Nations, 1996, pp. 15-16). Whilst the report is discussed in more detail in the literature review, it is worth highlighting that this research is aligned to the historical roots of the social justice movement described by the United Nations as:
[A concept developed] in the wake of the industrial revolution and the parallel development of the socialist doctrine… an expression of protest against what was perceived as the capitalist exploitation of labour and as a focal point for the development of measures to improve the human condition. It was born as a revolutionary slogan embodying the ideals of progress and fraternity… a rallying cry for progressive thinkers and political activists… Of particular importance in the present context is the link between the growing legitimization of the concept of social justice, on the one hand, and the emergence of the social sciences as distinct areas of activity and the creation of economics and sociology as disciplines separate from philosophy (notably moral philosophy), on the other hand. Social justice became more clearly defined when a distinction was drawn between the social sphere and the economic sphere, and grew into a mainstream preoccupation when a number of economists became convinced that it was their duty not only to describe phenomena but also to propose criteria for the distribution of the fruits of human activity.
(United Nations, 1996, p. 12)
Nonetheless, because the responsibilities of ‘administering’ social justice in the UK primarily relies on its technocratic and centralising government, the concept remains a matter of policy and inevitable instrumentalism that is alluded to in the above quote. One aspect of this research will be to work with case study participants by referencing critical perspectives from the UN report to explore how social justice is interpreted and how it is applied ethically and morally by socially engaged arts organisations.
In summary, this research is not interested in further ‘evidencing’ the predominant type of instrumental ‘participatory arts’ described above (and in more detail in the literature review), nor does it consider that all participatory or socially engaged arts activities must always be classified as secondary to some notional typography of ‘primary human needs’. Rather, this research is interested in radically activist arts practice that engages in counter-hegemonic interventions, seeks to develop and/ or enhance awareness of issues surrounding social justice, and/ or produces new ways of thinking about and/ or producing new forms of practice that can be considered self-sustaining. It is from these perspectives that the following working hypothesis has been developed.
The concept of using a working hypothesis for research based upon critical theory is problematic, particularly for Critical Theorists from The Frankfurt School. This is because, for Critical Theorists such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, a hypothesis was considered empiricist – a ‘positivistically reductive mode of inference’ (Strydom, 2011, p. 148). In common with empirical modes of inference, critical theory utilises traditional concepts of deduction and induction but places a critical emphasis upon abduction, rather than deduction, creating space for dialectically imaginative thinking in so doing (ibid.). It has been argued by Habermas (himself referencing the pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce) that only abduction can generate new knowledge through a ‘critical process of “determinate negation”’ – a process that must embody ‘ongoing learning’ (MacKendrick, 2008, p. 175). It is entirely in keeping with the development of this research that the research seeks to investigate the following working hypothesis, developed by and with a firm focus on, the processes of abduction:
Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and antagonistic 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.
 For a list of all seventeen ‘activities’, see http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/research-and-data/arts-audiences/arts-based-segmentation-research/faqs/#5
 For more about these developments, see the original text of United Nations’ Agenda 21 (1992) - accessible via http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?documentid=52 - and subsequent UN reaffirmations of support at subsequent ‘Rio’ summits
northerngame A child stands, face turned away from the camera, on a piece of ground somewhere near a small village in Northumberland. The ground seems marked, and marked out, as if for a ritual: possibly the celebration of a pagan god. The child is a question: a question of belonging, of tradition and masculinity, of the past and the future, its face turned away to the smouldering hills.
The image is part of “northerngame” at The Shed at The Whistle Art Stop, Haltwhistle, West Northumberland. The artist is Stevie Ronnie.
The works shown here re-deploy skills once-prevalent in these valleys: the joinery, the pit, the steelyard and the print-room. On one wall, a photoprint (fashioned by laser) turns a “blue” mud playing-pit into an almost starless sky. On another, the close-up of worn carpet covering the pit becomes a catafalque, a shrine. No wonder, then, that the source of the blue clay remains closed, protected, clandestine.
Between these works, as words do, wood-block communicates and re-frames the game’s local dialect into delicate blue memory. Clay, pit. Hob, HoY! When the quoit meets the ringing steel spur with a stunning ring of success, it reverberates both room and history. Suspended from shark-wire, a solitary quoit throws, in the middle of a sudden power-cut, deeper shadows against the pristine gallery wall. Its parabola throws perspective. When the lights return, the elegant gallery lighting echoes the square grid of the quoit pit.
The Blue clay pit, retrieved and reconstructed, fixes gravity in the centre of the space. Marks into its surface trace the play of random children, curious locals, astonished visitors. A quoit team, from host communities – and now artistic participants – bowl down the hill towards The Comrades Club. Their game, their northern game, which (one of three types) obeys precise rules against the lure of chance, is now artwork and community’s play.
The photographic prints could be larger – they could be massive – and still possess this unexpected tenderness. They are solitary, austere and luscious. Within them, colours, almost imperceptible, nearly forgotten, explode and multiply. As if invigilating a gripping final, you move closer still.
Put the clay between your fingers and its delicacy betrays the weight of digging it, the toil of carrying it, the effort of shaping it: a game that requires no stadia, and barely any commentary, only the commitment of its players and their shared quiet joy.
The child, standing at the pit, gives it both proportion and perspective. The question asked here is of tradition, its continuation and survival. Will boys play in the future (will girls?): how resilient are such pleasures against the rivalry of competing screens, tablet and phone?
But for a moment, lean forward, anticipate the feel of the metal in your hand, gauge the distance from here to there, its tribute and capture here.
A child asks a question: will you answer?
Ron Moule Saturday, 07 June 2014
Working with traditional communities and contemporary exhibitions
This post is an initial attempt to describe an extraordinary socially engaged art commission I was lucky enough to co-create with artist Stevie Ronnie. The work was participatory; the exhibition likewise. The opening was Friday 6th June. The work is on show until the end of July, so this is my reflection of our work up to the exhibition and what happened at the opening…
Ring, Ringer, Wring, Case hardened steel Northumbrian quoit, wrought iron hob, shark wire, blue clay, found items, Stevie Ronnie 2014 (photograph, Stephen Pritchard)
Artist: Stevie Ronnie
Curator/ producer: Stephen Pritchard
Produced by: dot to dot active arts CIC
Commissioned by: The Whistle Art Stop
Location: pubs across South West Northumberland
Exhibition venue: Haltwhistle, Northumberland
Funded by: Arts Council England and Northumberland Arts Development
Project dates: April to June 2014
Exhibition dates: 6th June to end July 2014
Appropriated image of spectators watching game at Cart’s Bog, Allen Valley Quoits League website
northerngame is a project that has really just begun. It’s about going to pubs in rural locations, watching a traditional sport, chatting to the people taking part and spectators, drinking, trying things out for yourself, listening, observing, meeting people, and, most of all, learning. northerngame is also about socially engaged arts practice as grassroots community engagement and contemporary art spaces in (this case) rural places. It’s about developing trust, being irreverent, going to odd locations, talking, thinking, making art that can be remade, and playing games as old as their even older hosts – the hills and dales of the North Pennines and South West Northumberland.
The project is about quoits – an ancient and traditional game with its own language, a strong sense of community, yet mysterious and little known outside the circles of those who play the sport. There are strict rules, teams, league divisions, cups, local small business sponsors, individual competitions, festival ‘open’ games, and competition and camaraderie in equal measures. The league games mostly take place in pubs and working men’s and conservative clubs; outside, in beer gardens and adjoining fields. Some pitches are well kept, others a little ramshackle. The overriding feeling is of ‘make use of what’s at hand – that’ll fettle it.’ The measurements are in yards: the pits one yard square; distance from hob to hob must be eleven yards. Well, that’s the case for the ‘northern game’ as played in the Allen Valley Quoits League. There are others, including the Scottish ‘long game’ with a larger throwing distance of eighteen yards and quoits that are twice as heavy! There are also grass versions of the game (often played at local festivals and shows). There is a strong sense of DIY. This appeals to our creative ethos – independence, community, do-it-yourself (or with the help of others who fancy getting involved/ having a go).
Ring, Ringer, Wring, Case hardened steel Northumbrian quoit, wrought iron hob, shark wire, blue clay, found items, Stevie Ronnie 2014 (photograph, Stephen Pritchard)
So what is northerngame really about? It’s a socially engaged art project, plain and simple. It’s about grassroots engagement with local people who don’t (on the whole) go to art galleries or understand contemporary art or socially engaged art or (for that matter) what we’re doing. Or didn’t… It’s also about helping a contemporary art gallery in the post-industrial town of Haltwhistle engage with new local audiences and participants in a way that’s simultaneously understandable and unusual. We tried to be slow and sensitive; honest; organic. The final works in the exhibition were unknown until days before the opening. Artist Stevie Ronnie researched the sport and visited various locations and watched games; we took part in some too. But, although Stevie had cameras and other equipment with him, we didn’t ever even suggest using them to document players or their stories. It just wasn’t right at the time. Conversation and participation were paramount. We wanted to avoid exploiting people or constructing situations. We felt playful. We were welcomed. We were privileged.
Stevie and I thought and talked long and hard about the exhibition – how it might look, what it could contain and what it couldn’t, and how it might be received. The intention was that the space should be playful, interactive, inviting participation yet also free from instruction. The hope was that visitors would make their own choices about what they felt comfortable touching, moving, banging, clanging, throwing – even cleaning! The installation is in a white cube space. It plays to the minimalist aesthetic of contemporary visual art and, at the same time, also jars against it. It defies convention and reimagines traditions. Not art traditions. Rural outdoor traditions.
The exhibition consists of one large white-framed letterpress piece, The Vocabulary of Chance Meetings on Blue Clay, containing words often used by quoits players but, perhaps, alien to outsiders, and three smaller white-framed Lambda prints produced by Stevie during a visit to a disused quoits pitch at Allenheads Inn entitled Blue Clay and Hob, The Covering of the Blue Clay Pit, and Here, Where a Team Stood on the Blue Clay. These works are elusive and beautiful – perfectly aligned with contemporary visual arts convention. Stevie’s other work Ring, Ringer, Wring mixes materials in a series of three linked installations comprising: a steel hob (stake) installed in a gallery wall with a brand new quoit suspended on shark wire swinging gently next to it; a centrally placed yard square reclaimed wooden box containing blue clay with another hob sitting proud of the surface and another brand new quoit; and a rough handmade stone bench with rusting bucket, scrubbing brush and beer towel – the bucket contains muddy water.
Ring, Ringer, Wring blurs boundaries between what is art. That is the intention of the entire project. We question the nature of art, white cubes, audience as viewer/ participant. We do this because it is playful. Because people who go to galleries will hopefully feel unsettled, uncertain of whether to touch or just look. Because people who don’t go to galleries might feel the space is fun and interactive – maybe not recognising all of the works as works of art. In this sense, northerngame is an experiment – risky. Not an exploitative one, rather a participatory one. The opening was it’s test. People from the ‘art world’ came along with local people and their children, and most importantly, quoits players came. The quoits players travelled from as far as forty miles away to have a look. They brought unusual quoits. They chatted, drank beer, threw some quoits in the gallery, talked a bit about art. Children swung and banged and clattered the suspended quoit against the wall-mounted hob over and over and over again until the white cube wall surrounding the hob began developing indentations and muddy impressions – marks made by people having a go. The gallery rang loud as one person after another swung the quoit against the hob then watched as it danced, drawn back towards the hob in an almost perpetual motion. The lambda prints were no longer spirit level straight but that was all good – they found their own place again and again. People threw the other quoit into the blue clay box, aiming for the hob, sticking it in the clay, holding it, even brushing and washing it – the muddy water spattering across the newly painted gallery floor and up the fresh white walls. The project seemed to find something for everyone. That is what we hoped to achieve.
Most importantly of all, the quoits players were a bit bemused by the exhibition but enjoyed something different. They talked to traditional arts audiences and to local people and children animatedly about their passion for their sport. They brought more objects that are now part of the installation. They were surprised there were no photographs of them or other players in the exhibition. This surprised Stevie and I. We knew we hadn’t taken any images of them; hadn’t even really asked. But now they seemed to be giving us an invitation… Looks like there’ll be a return match! Such is the nature of northerngame.
northerngame exhibition title, Chalk on one yard square blackboard, 2014
This is the final section of my draft research which considers other disciplines relevant to my research question (Can participatory art support sustainable social change?) They are interesting, perhaps, inspiring alternative perspectives that may help provide new ways of investigating and developing concepts surround socially engaged practice, social change and sustainability. The areas covered are: critical theory; critical postmodernism; post-structuralism; postdevelopment theory; participatory action research; the psychodynamics of playing and reality; the carnivalesque and critical pedagogy. There is insufficient space to develop historical backgrounds to these perspectives nor to fully explore arguments around these disciplines. The aim here is to summarise key elements from the different disciplines as deemed relevant for the purposes of this research.
This is the ninth and final post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change? Previous posts are below. This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there. It will be refined. Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon. Please feel free to comment and criticise…
The fourth and final post in this section briefly discusses themes around the carnivalesque, critical pedagogy and radical interpretations of social practice for social justice…
The carnivalesque is another place where art and life are blurred - playfully disrupted by participation by everyone; an alternative world where rich may become poor and paupers, kings. It is a concept encourages radicalism and dissensus; a concept well-aligned to radical socially engaged art interventions. The classic definition of the carnivalesque appears in Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965):
‘Because of their obvious sensuous of character and their strong element of play, carnival images strongly resemble certain artistic forms, namely the spectacle. In turn, medieval festivals often tended toward carnival folk culture, the culture of the marketplace, and to a certain extent became one of its components. But the basic carnival nucleus… belongs to the borderline between art and life. In reality, it is life itself but shaped according to a certain pattern of play… it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators… Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all the people' (Bakhtin, 1984 , p. 7).
Perhaps, then, the socially engaged art can benefit from a closer relationship to the carnivalesque and performativity of practice? When linked to critical pedagogical theory and practice, perhaps, socially engaged art can find a route towards social change, or, perhaps, more critically, to social justice? Helguera certainly offers and alternative, yet all-encompassing vision of socially engaged practice, that exemplifies a critical, cross-disciplinary perspective with radical pedagogy and the theatrical performance characteristics of the carnivalesque. His book, Education for Socially Engaged Art (2011), seeks to bring together art and education critically. His conclusion is that the carnivalesque as described by Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World represents a form of cultural inversion in which ‘social hierarchies are temporarily broken through satire, celebration, and chaos’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 67), a form of performativity ‘derived from the history of performance art’ he believes should be central to socially engaged art but avoidant of subservience to any ‘cause’ that may turn practice into pure entertainment (Helguera, 2011, p. 68). Helguera is certain that ‘an aspect of play’ must be present in socially engaged practice – the type of playfulness that ‘upsets, even if temporarily, the existing social values (Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque”) that room is created for reflection, escaping the merely hedonistic experience of spectacle’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 70).
Here then lies a critical perspective that defines socially engaged art as a form of sometimes temporal, always disruptive practice that learns and, therefore, benefits from interacting with the knowledge from other disciplines, including ‘sociology, education, linguistics, and ethnography – to make decisions about how to engage and construct meaningful exchanges and experiences’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. xii-xiv). Helguera is clear that, for him, ‘[t]o argue… that good socially engaged art creates constructive personal relationships is wrong: an artist’s successful project could consist of deliberate miscommunication, in upsetting social relations, or in simply being hostile to the public’ (Helguera, 2011, p. xv). He is equally clear in his conviction that ‘[a]ll art, inasmuch as it is created to be communicated to or experienced by others, is social’ but that this does not explain the different experience of taking part in socially engaged art as opposed to, for example, viewing an exhibition (Helguera, 2011, p. 1). He sees socially engaged art’s ‘uncomfortable position’ situated somewhere between art and other disciplines as being ‘exactly the position it should inhabit’ because:
‘The practice’s direct links to and conflicts with both art and sociology must be overtly declared and the tension addressed, not resolved. Socially engaged artists can and should challenge the art market in attempts to redefine the notion of authorship, but to do so they must accept and affirm their existence in the realm of art, as artists’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 4-5).
This is an important position of flux; a critical perspective that explains socially engaged art as operating alongside and within other disciplines, problematising and making ambiguous issues so that it can help create new ways of seeing that are situated within ‘current political and social affairs’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 5-7). For Helguera, understanding the different natures of participation is essential in understanding how to work with participants. He describes this as follows:
‘An awareness of the voluntary, nonvoluntary, or involuntary predisposition of participants in a given project allows for the formulation of a successful approach to an individual or community, as approaches for participants with different predispositions vary widely. For example, if a participant is willingly and actively engaged as a volunteer, it may be in the interest of the artist to make gestures to encourage that involvement. If a participant has been forced to be part of the project for external reasons, it may be beneficial for the artist to acknowledge that fact and, if the objective is engagement, take measures to create a greater sense of ownership for that person. In the case of involuntary participants, the artist may decide to hide the action from them or make them aware at a certain point of their participation in the art project’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 16-17).
This advice is not only useful to socially engaged artists but also as a means of differentiating ‘participation’ in future policy-making and academic research. Similarly, Helguera’s views that successful socially engaged projects are usually developed with local communities over a long period, so do not often ‘travel’ well (Helguera, 2011, p. 20), and that projects often ‘serve very specific audiences’, even when apparently open to everyone (Helguera, 2011, p. 22), are important points to consider when critically researching and devising any participatory project. He suggests that any project operates on three levels: ‘one is its immediate circle of participants and supporters; the second is the critical art world, toward which it usually looks for validation; and the third is society at large, through governmental structures, the media, and other organizations or systems that may absorb and assimilate the ideas or other aspects of the project’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 22-23). Likewise, socially engaged practice, whilst seemingly similar to social work and perhaps even operating in similar ‘social ecosystems’, is a critically different field because, whilst social work may be described as:
‘a value-based profession based on a tradition of beliefs and systems that aim for the betterment of humanity and support ideals such as social justice, the defense of human dignity and worth, and the strengthening of human relationships. An artist, in contrast, may subscribe to the same values but makes work that ironizes, problematizes, and even enhances tensions around those subjects, in order to provoke reflection’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 35).
Helguera is at pains here to distance critically socially engaged art practice from social work because (and this is essential to this research and to broader contemporary issues such as UK arts policy and government drives to install participatory art as a panacea for social ills):
'The traditional argument against equating SEA with social work is that to do so would subject art to direct instrumentalization, relinquishing a crucial aspect of art-making that demands self-reflexivity and criticality… [precluding] the possibility that art can be deliberately instrumental and intentionally abandon any hopes of self-reflexivity… [whereas the] stronger argument is that SEA has a double function that social work lacks… [By] not just offering a service to a community (assuming it is a service-oriented piece); we are proposing our action as a symbolic statement in the context of our cultural history (and/or art history) and entering into a larger artistic debate… [Yet there are] similarities between the forms… [such as understanding] the mutual respect, inclusivity, and collaborative involvement that are the main tenets of social work’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 35-37).
Helguera is clear that, whilst critical pedagogy does not seek to make art, approaches such as those elaborated by Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), can offer ‘a path to thinking about how an artist can engage with a community in a productive collaborative capacity’ in which it is clear that socially engaged artists cannot ‘act as a neutral entity, an invisible catalyst of experience’ (Helguera, 2011, pp. 52-53) because:
‘The expertise of the artist lies, like Freire’s, in being a non-expert, a provider of frameworks on which experiences can form and sometimes be directed and channeled to generate new insights around a particular issue’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 54).
From this perspective, Helguera develops the notion that ‘antisocial or antagonistic social action is a fundamental area of activity’ for socially engaged art; a place where confrontation involves ‘taking a critical position on a given issue without necessarily proposing an alternative’ – no answers, just new questions (Helguera, 2011, p. 59). Perhaps, then, Helguera’s marrying of critical pedagogy with socially engaged arts practice will not, like many other art forms, offer ‘accurate representation’, rather complicate ‘readings so that we can discover new questions’ because ‘it is when we position ourselves in those tentative locations, and when we persist in making them into concrete experiences, that interstices become locations of meaning’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 71). This idea, which Helguera develops as ‘Transpedagogy’, is unlike traditional conceptions of art as education – as interpretation or as learning to make art – but rather places ‘the pedagogical process’ at the centre of art-making, creating an ‘autonomous environment, mostly outside of any academic or institutional framework’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 78). This ‘expanded field of pedagogy’ frees art education (and, perhaps, broader forms of education) from traditional restrictions of teaching, connoisseurship and interpretation because, unlike the traditional field, it acknowledges education as a performative act, a ‘collective construction of knowledge, and an acceptance that knowledge is not ‘knowing’ but ‘a tool for understanding the world’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 80). This emerges in some forms of collective socially engaged practice as a ‘distancing… from art’; a ‘blurring of boundaries between disciplines’ indicative of ‘an emerging form of art-making in which art does not point at itself but instead focuses on the social process of exchange’ (Helguera, 2011, p. 81).
Perhaps, then, socially engaged art can, by incorporating approaches inherent in critical pedagogical and critical participation action research approaches, help people discover their own sense of understanding; their own independent forms of ‘expertise’? A position described by Horton, in conversation with Freire, as opposing many traditional approaches to social change in which:
‘Organizers are committed to achieving a limited, specific goal whether or not it leads to structural change, or reinforces the system, or plays in the hands of capitalists. The problem is confused because a lot of people use organizing to do some education and they think it's empowerment because that's what they're supposed to be doing. But quite often they disempower people in the process by using experts to tell them what to do while having the semblance of empowering people. That confuses the issue considerably’ (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 120).
Instead, Horton and Freire propose a position where ‘expertise is in knowing not to be an expert’ (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 128); explained by Horton as follows:
‘[E]xpert knowledge is different from having the expert telling people what to do… [which] takes away the power of people to make decisions… [so] there's no empowerment… no learning’ (Horton & Freire, 1990, p. 130).
The position of Horton and Freire as outlined above, is central to Helguera’s Transpedagogical approach to socially engaged practice; a position also supported by Bishop, who reflects that critical pedagogy’s inherent ‘insistence on the breakdown of teacher/ pupil hierarchy and participation as a route to empowerment’ is analogous to contemporary with socially engaged practice (Bishop, 2012, p. 267). This positioning of learning as independent and democratic seems rather more suggestive of social justice than social change; a change of emphasis discussed recently by Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe who stated that socially engaged art needs a new language because:
‘Social practice has tried to take over the role of what it means to work socially in the context of a place but there’s no real place there. It’s social; it’s everywhere. That’s one of the biggest issues I have with social practice now is how it’s managed to take the context out of the meaning and the value out of the work. Almost in the same way as “social change” has taken the progressive impact out of things’ (Dela, 2014).
So maybe socially engaged art practice is better aligned to the concept of social justice? As Lowe recently asked Creative Time ahead of being presented with the Annenberg Prize for Art and Social, ‘why they call it social “change” instead social “justice,” which has a very specific meaning. “Change” is a little, well…what does it mean? Everybody wants change’ (Dela, 2014).