I claim socially engaged art is DEAD. (Whether it ever lived or even existed beyond a category description is, of course, another question.) The Art World is DEAD. So, when the Art World subsumes the category description “socially engaged art” (and “social practice” and many more, for that matter) it must KILL the category description – the words.Read More
This is my full paper given as a lecture at Northumbria University in Newcastle on Wednesday 27th April 2016. It is the beginnings of an attempt to free radical social practice and activist art interventions from the ragwort-like sprouting of institutionalised and depoliciticised "socially engaged art".Read More
I've just shared my full paper from the Association of American Geographers Conference here but I thought some people might like to see the PowerPoint with notes or rather, I would recommend, the film with me presenting my paper. (I presented it virtually, so this is exactly as the audience saw and heard it at the conference.)Read More
I've just presented my paper "Place Guarding: Activist and Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification" at the Association of American Geographers Conference 2016 in San Francisco. I wasn't there. Made use of PowerPoint Mix! The PowerPoint and a nicer quality MP4 version will be available here very shortly. For now, here's my fully referenced paper with bibliography.Read More
When I hear about how a “community-led” regeneration project used “art” (or, if you’re one of the art purists, “not-art” – architectural design) to “shock” the art world/ system by winning one of their most sought after (and criticised) prizes, I naturally feel suspicious – I want more background.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...
I gave this presentation on 16th November 2015 at Durham University's Participatory Research Hub. The event aimed to explore what happens "when participatory research meets the creative sector". My presentation introduces dot to dot active arts, features my recent paper A View Is Always Worth It: Social Practice in Rural North East England, then reflects upon a project I collaborated on with Stevie Ronnie in 2014 - northerngame. I think it reveals a more idealistic aspect of my research and practice. The intention was to explore the subtleties of self-initiated grassroots socially engaged art. The beginnings of something. Curiosities.
Comments always welcome as usual.
Please click the picture or link below to go to the online presentation and please remember to click the "notes" option on the bottom right of the PowerPoint screen for my text.
Dotto, Courtesy of The Black-E.
I asked the two questions in my title as an immediate response to a panel entitled ‘What kind of organisation do we need to develop to work with communities…?’ The problem seemed obvious; becoming increasingly apparent as the Community Arts? Learning from the Legacy of Artists’ Social Initiatives conference (part of Liverpool Biennial’s programming) progressed. Those ‘learning’ from artists should be organisations – who presumably had recently learned or were still learning the importance of working with people outside of our narrow arts world. This is, for me, a deeply problematic and unsettling narrative. Questions of appropriation sprang to mind.
Reflecting back, it was clear from the offset when (co-convenor) Sally Tallant said she preferred to ‘challenge institutions from the inside’ – a now rather hackneyed phrase within the arts. Fellow co-convenor Andrea Phillips presented a much more oppositional stance. She quickly highlighted the inherent ‘contradictions’ linked to the ‘institutionalisation of participation and engagement’ which could lead to the ‘banalisation of community’. She pointed to Community Arts’ deeply ‘political investment’ which had been dampened within a ‘misrecognition of intent’ and the Blairite shift from notions of ‘exclusion to inclusion’.
The founders of The Black-E and conference hosts, Bill and Wendy Harpe, presented a brief overview of their incredible archive of almost 50 years of community arts interventions and participatory exhibitions. Their commitment and passion was infectious. ‘Participation used to have one meaning – now we have 101’, said Bill. He later revealed that The Black-E were facing Arts Council cuts of 35% - the highest level of any NPO organisation in Liverpool. He was, as always, upbeat in his determination to keep going. For me, cuts to The Black-E with its long history of working as part of communities, represents an insidious and conscious decision by Arts Council England to replace great community art by artists and smaller organisations with glass bastions such as Home and The Factory (and many others around the country).
Frances Rifkin followed a fast-paced Jason Bowman with a more pointedly political reflection upon the field of practice. ‘We saw our work as political, transformative – not as do-gooders,’ she explained. She regretted the point in time when ‘the exclusive notion of excellence began to creep in’. She talked about battles, the importance of trade unionism and marginalisation. Issues I feel are all implicated within the creeping professionalisation and institutionalisation of our field. ‘The use of volunteers is one way of not funding artists,’ she added before going on to say that it was ‘disgraceful there were no opportunities for young artists’ today. Frances revealed she was optimistic about a shift within the arts because, and I echo her thoughts, big arts organisations and funders such as Arts Council England are vulnerable after suffering from round after round of austerity.
Later Sophie Hope declared that Community Art could be seen as a form of ‘oppositional practice’ that rejected the marketisation and professionalisation endemic within the field today. Later still, Nato Thompson whistled through several of Creative Time’s ‘commissions’. His narrative was interesting. ‘We do public art,’ he said. He was immediately followed by Anna Colin of Open School East. She described the school as collective and self-organising with ‘a structure that’s quite light – self-reflexive and self-critical’. Yet, I was left wondering about the intentions of the founders: The Barbican Centre and CREATE London…
There was a perceivable heightening of tensions when Tate’s Director of Learning, Anna Cutler, began by asking the audience, ‘Who would define your practice as educational or learning?’ Not many hands went up. She seemed ruffled. ‘I would like to see things changed,’ she said rather unconvincingly. She attempted and failed to describe ‘socially engaged practice’ as a ‘sliding scale’ in which she said she ‘liked to think I’m in the middle’. Safe and sound! Except, for me, Tate do not do socially engaged art – they do outreach and education programmes and participation. Oh, and let’s not forget their dodgy sponsors!! (#BPMustGo!) ‘As long as you’re transparent with participants, its ok,’ and, ‘It’s all about changing the processes, otherwise you’re just moaning from the outside,’ and ‘We’re an institution… change takes a long time,’ she added. Tensions rose further. Then, after several more references to change from Anna, I asked my question. The room ignited.
The rest of the day was notable for Sonia Boyce’s beautifully moving work, for some sort of democratic intervention that demanded more time for open comments (which were a little disjointed but really welcome) and a great summing up by Andrea Phillips. I listened intently to the various perspectives on Granby Four Streets but still felt somehow uncomfortable with the project and its potential to become an unwitting (perhaps even knowing) agent for gentrification. I remembered Andrea Phillips conclusion to Art and Housing: The Private Connection (2012):
The artist is a self-builder. The rich man is a self-builder. The yachts at Venice, with their open invitations for cocktails to socially engaged artists, facilitate the perfect and paradoxical nexus of new “social” housing. The poor can only stand and stare.
My lasting memories of this exceptionally interesting and revealing conference revolve around the notion of oppositions. Community Arts was an oppositional movement. Socially engaged art is based on the premise of anti-institutionalism, amongst other things. Institutions seem to feel that they can, given enough time and, undoubtedly lots of money, change to take on the role of community artist. This move will come at the expense of the local, independent, autonomous interventions of many individual artists, collectives and smaller artist-led organisations working within communities. Community Arts is about trust and togetherness. Are large arts organisations really best placed to replace people (artists) who are driven to work in this way? Can they?
We must indeed learn from the legacy of Community Arts and STORM THE CITADELS as Owen Kelly suggested back in 1984!
Ruined House - an act of public reading - took place today between 10.45am and 11.45am on the Gateshead Millennium Bridge. The first of a new series of public interventions by dot to dot active arts CIC.
I repeatedly read 'A Note on The Title' from the appendices of Bleak House by Charles Dickens, 1853. A list of ten possible titles for the novel.
The transcript is as follows:
1. Tom-All-Alone's / The Ruined House
2. Tom-All-Alone's / The Solitary House / [That never knew happiness] / That was always shut up.
Bleak House Academy / The East Wind
3. Tom-All-Alone's / The Ruined Building/Factory/Mill/House. / That got into Chancery / and never got out.
4. Tom-All-Alone's / The Solitary House / where the grass grew.
5. Tom-All-Alone's / The Solitary House / That was always shut up / never lighted.
6. Tom-All-Alone's / The Ruined Mill / That got into Chancery / and never got out
7. Tom-All-Alone's / The Solitary House / where The Wind howled.
8. Tom-All-Alone's / The Ruined [Mill] House / That got into Chancery / and never got out
9. (A fair copy of 8., without the word 'Mill' written and then deleted as above.)
10. Bleak House / and the East Wind / How they both got into Chancery / and never got out.
I was invited to attend Storming the Citadels? Changing attitudes and frameworks to arts practices and research in community settings by Sophie Hope. As an admirer of Sophie’s research and a believer in many of the demands made in Owen Kelly’s classic 1984 text Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels, I travelled to Bloomsbury, London as a hopeful participant in an outpouring of revolutionary fervour. I read Slavoj Žižek’s It’s the Political Economy, Stupid! (2013) on the train. I reflected upon my feelings that Jeremy Corbyn might really be a last hope, not just for British (English?) politics but perhaps for art and cultural democracy. This was the first day of my return to research following my paternity leave. Six months of no research. Six months of joyfully privileged time spend with my new son, daughter and wife.
I also re-read Su Braden’s Artists and People (1978) – another classic example of inspiring writing about the community art movement. I pondered on why the privatised East Coast Trains service was a somehow unsatisfying experience when compared to travelling on effectively the same nationalised service not long ago. I was ready to be inspired by finally meeting and hearing from Su Braden as well as a host of other exciting speakers. Would this be the moment when we started talking seriously about tearing down the citadels brick by brick?
I guess my expectations are best described by a couple of Owen Kelly quotes. Firstly, his assertion that we must ‘describe accurately the shapes of the relevant citadels, and to indicate both the importance, and the real possibility, of taking them by storm’ felt as pressing now as it was back in 1984 (Kelly, 1984, p. 6). Like Kelly, I have a growing sense that, like the community artists, many within the field of participatory arts (perhaps even socially engaged art too) have ceased to think and act like ‘threatening revolutionaries’ in favour of directly and indirectly working for state institutions as ‘primitive guides whose role [is] to lead people through the badlands to the citadels of culture’ (Kelly, 1984, p. 25). Could we, following Peter Sloterdijk and Slavoj Žižek, find the strength to invest in ‘banks of rage’ in sufficient quantities to bring about our emancipation or would we, like so many other leftist movements, fail to accrue enough ‘rage-capital’ (Žižek, 2013, p. 26)?
When I arrived, I noticed several paintings on the walls bearing the initials ‘VB’. Vanessa Bell? In the Keynes Library at Birkbeck? This was the original haunt of the Bloomsbury group. A place steeped in modernist history. Its grandeur and heritage seemed to jar with any notion of storming citadels. Perhaps that was the point. Perhaps we must be on the inside? Can you storm citadels from the inside, I wondered? The ‘long table’ dinner party style conversation format also seemed a little off-putting; perhaps too polite.
STOP. SCENE SET. MOVE ON.
THIS IS NOT A DETAILED REVIEW.
PAGES OF NOTES.
THAT’LL BE ENOUGH.
Ok. So here’s a flavour of what happened during an intensive day storming (or, perhaps, norming). Threads. Leading somewhere. Several directions. Sometimes I felt hopeful; often frustrated; increasingly uncomfortable. More on that later.
Research pairing five ‘community art pioneers’ with five current practitioners suggested an increasingly formalised practice; made safe; less critical; increasingly technical and bureaucratic; less politicised; more focused on target groups with specific identities; more short-term projects; outcomes expected; boxes must be ticked. Perhaps things may not have moved on very much? Community arts may have provided a ‘mouth piece for communities’. THINKS: Not sure.
Participatory work commissioned by large arts institutions and funded by Arts Council England contrasted with a concern that institutions ‘destroy innovation by distilling information’, creating artists as ‘delivery agents’. Much work in the field today seems to be short-term, ‘fast-turnaround’. Common theme: New Labour were responsible. Discomfort at thoughts of large arts organisations competing for funding with small youth work groups. Artist or activist first? Training in conflict resolution? [THINKS: No thanks.] Do we always ‘give funders exactly what they want’ – or are there degrees of subversion?
Instrumentalism (THE ‘I’ word). Great interjection: ‘We were about social change. But now the world seems worse!’ What went wrong? Was GLC funding really open and positive? Could this model work today? As practitioners, we ‘must be more than accessories to gentrification’. Perhaps we need to ‘radically rethink the role of community’. Outreach (THE ‘O’ word) – ‘putting a person (artist) in there’. [THINKS: Is this the participatory arts equivalent to ‘boots on the ground’?] Co-production (A ‘now’ word). Neoliberalism (THE ‘£’ word). Gentrification (again) followed by ‘creating a space’. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was an artist on every street corner?’ [GRIMACES. THEN THINKS: no.]
Another great intervention: ‘We’re tiptoeing round the edges, not storming the citadels!’ New Labour again. No participants here. [NODS HEAD.] Another powerful intervention: ‘services no longer exist and artists are being asked to fill the gaps’. [THINKS: so true - ARTISTS AS SOCIAL WORKERS – no!] ‘I’ve been a foot soldier too many times!’ An honest admission.
Science Fiction. Not knowing. Plural readings. Utopian. Questioning common sense ‘truths’. Metaphysical discussions. ‘Is “The Other” a threat or a good?’ Spaces – should they be risk-free or ‘not very safe’? [THINKS: we missed out by not exploring literary parallels in more detail here.]
Bold statements: ‘I don’t see myself as collaborative, participatory and certainly don’t see myself as a community artist’; and ‘What happens when I impose myself on a situation - to be the delivery agent?’ Honest. Powerful descriptions of an artist’s recent practice.
Community art: ‘We knew there was no… pay packet’; but ‘We did storm the citadels’; then ‘Some of us became local councillors’. [THINKS: Wow. Expectation turned upside down.] Dandelions and Roses. The second reference. ‘We toured the country. We weren’t staying.’ Community arts as transient act. At last, ‘Mural, mural or mural?’ Practice as stereotype. Honesty: ‘It was difficult to do anything other than celebrating’. Moment of awakening: ‘Someone said, “When are you going to stop gilding the ghettos?” I was devastated… So we rebelled.’ Association of Community Artists – no one took them seriously. Community arts ‘wasn’t a very big movement’, just ‘a few people making… a lot of noise’. [THINKS: great to hear this historical perspective.] Tory Enterprise Allowance offered community artists a little regular income to make work!
Commissioning ‘social art’ practices today: often artist-led; professionalization; artist as entrepreneur; artist as ‘service provider’; socially engaged art as departure from community art; socially engaged art ‘not a movement’; ‘shared methods – different rationales’. Owen Kelly’s called for ‘smaller haciendas’ (author of Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels (1984)) – ideas apparently ‘not transferable today’. [THINKS: I’m not so sure.] ‘We should distinguish between art and activism’. [THINKS: can we and why?] Question: Should commissioning (of socially engaged art) continue? Answer: Move away from commissioning. [THINKS: seems a bit over simplistic.]
Su Braden: Paris 1968; eccentric private donors and exchange economies; went to Africa; film company; Department for Overseas Development; Action Aid. [EPIPHANY.]
‘We need to work with government.’ [OPENLY DISAGREE.] We ended with my favourite quote from the day: as socially engaged artists we must be ‘violently intellectual’.
OK. SO HERE’S HOW MY MIND INTERPRETTED ALL OF THESE CONVERSATIONS.
Artists and people start out with good intentions – perhaps radical, democratic, autonomous, and even emancipatory.
They attempt to subvert instrumentalism – Trojan Horses, parasites, Robin Hood.
They (perhaps intentionally, perhaps inadvertently) become increasingly complicit with instrumentalism.
They join the status quo – regeneration, institutions, overseas development.
They (sometimes) leave the ‘narrow’ (a quote) field of the arts.
THIS SEEMED TO BE A FAMILIAR PATTERN. A PULL TOWARDS THE CITADELS; FROM MARGINS TO CENTRE. THIS IS NOT, PERHAPS, SOMETHING PARTICULARLY UNIQUE TO THE ARTS.
Perhaps, then, we begin believing we must storm the citadels – to ‘tear them down brick by brick’ so we can build ‘a series of smaller haciendas’, chanting NO MORE CITADELS (Kelly, 1984, p. 138).
Can we avoid this (perhaps inevitable) slide? I’m not sure. This is a work in progress.
I STILL HAVE HOPE.
Things are changing. Neoliberalism is weak. It has been exposed. The art world status quo likewise. Some in the arts say we should move towards economics. It drives all policy at the moment. Comply to survive. I suggest that this is an incredibly short-term way of thinking and doing – defeatist even. We can invest in our cultural bank of rage; combine it with the incredible investments of other movements for social justice and political change. We must define art’s citadels – new and old. The walls are crumbling but THEY are using the debris, OUR debris, to strengthen their defences.
NOW IS NOT THE TIME FOR POLITENESS.
We must realise, following Žižek’s reinterpretation of Hegel, that: ‘WE ARE THE ONES WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR’ (Žižek, 2013, p. 27). Act now. Learn from the past. Believe in the commons.
WE ARE ALL EXCLUDED.
This is not for everyone. But then neither is socially engaged art.
Kelly, O., 1984. Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels. London: Comedia.
Žižek, S., 2013. It's the Political Economy, Stupid!. In: G. Sholette & O. Ressler, eds. It's the Political Economy, Stupid: The Global Financial Crisis in Art and Theory. London: Pluto Press.
Eavesdropping, Aidan Moesby, Vinyl wall text, 2014
I’m intensely interested in perceptions of socially engaged art: past, present and future practice and theory. My research and practice is about exploring the roots of this practice, its place in societies, its ability to open up potential spaces on a myriad of levels from social to personal, and its potential to help support a shift towards a communitarian society free from the evils of neoliberalism. I am interested in the praxis of social practice - critical reflection (theory) AND social and collective action towards social transformation (practice). So I think about notions of marginality, play, psychodynamics, critical theory, dialectics, social justice, the commons, transition, critical utopias more. Oh, and of course socially engaged practice, like all forms of art and, increasingly, life, is a breeding ground for terminologies. This leads to dissensus – we do not agree; do not need to agree. Tensions are essential in theory and practice. They drive creativity. But, perhaps unfortunately, we need to describe and define what we have done, what we do and what we hope we will do tomorrow. We cannot escape the strictures of our languages. Words always offer liberation whilst they simultaneously hold us hostage.
So when I read this week that, ‘Socially engaged practice could change the world. But first we need another name to describe something that is part of everyday life.’ I was both sceptical and hopeful. I believe that socially engaged art as a form of living and sharing, as a means not an ends, can or might be able to help reenchant our world and, by actively supporting movements for broader social and cultural change, replace a neoliberal hegemony with a truly democratic and communitarian society. My rallying cry remains: THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO! But I am sceptical of why some people feel the need to attempt to rename any arts practice, or anything else in life for that matter. Words are important BUT they are also just words. Theory is bound by words in a manner that practice transcends.
Leo Burtin’s blog for The Guardian was written in response to a recent Devoted and Disgruntled discussion on socially engaged practice in which a satellite group discussed the question: ‘What’s another name for this goddamn arts practice?!’ A brilliant question. But, again, I wonder why some feel the need to rename the practice? Let’s face it, the name is deeply contested anyway with some seeing no (or little) difference between participatory arts, social practice, dialogic practice, transitional practice, and relational art – this list continues. Even activist art can be seen as a form of socially engaged arts practice – or not. In the end, it doesn’t matter on the one (practice-based) hand, yet is deeply important on the other (theoretical) hand. Somewhere in between sits the ‘arms-length’, bureaucratic body – a terribly contrary, sometimes contradictory place. Let’s face it, we all hate naming what we do, don’t we? When working with people, I NEVER use the words ‘socially engaged’, ‘community’ or even ‘art’ at all… Well, at least until people ask if they are doing art, at which point I often ask them if they think they are doing art and whether that matters. But, unfortunately, funders need to get a grip on what they’re being asked to give money for and need boxing ticking, and academics (like me) need to be able to position the practice in terms of broader theoretical frames. So, sometimes we must label ourselves and our work; sometimes there’s no need. Language, like practice, is always contingent.
When it comes to suggesting that socially engaged art or any form of art or, indeed, any singular practice can succeed in ‘creating community’ because ‘community doesn’t happen on its own’, I feel immediately wary. We must be careful not to become messianic; to believe in socially engaged art with a missionary zeal; to believe art can ‘change the world’ or even make ‘the world a better place’. I agree that socially engaged art practice can help people create a potential space where they may envision ‘radical transformation(s)’ and even support people who wish to make these transformations happen. It is not, for me, a vehicle for change, however. Nor, as I have explained above, do we need to worry about needing to ‘free ourselves from the kind of language which alienates other people’. All language can potentially alienate people whilst communicating shared understandings to others. It’s about choosing a language that responds to each situation, each context – a process that must always be different; always specific. A suggestion via Twitter that we should ‘ditch the definitions’ is, unfortunately, a little too simplistic. I am, however, concerned about claims that ‘it is possible to use art to create the kind of society that works for each and every one of us’. The spectre of soft instrumentalism reappears. I’m not sure we should ‘use art’ for any purpose and it would seem that a society that’s for everyone is a rather fanciful, perhaps, liberal ideal. But then language is always difficult…
To end, I would like to perhaps also query Leo’s suggestion that ‘there is a difference between community arts and socially engaged practice’. In suggesting that ‘community arts demonstrates clear benefits for the participants in a specific community’ whilst ‘socially engaged practice creates its own communities and generates the sort of value that cannot be immediately measured’, I think that Leo has confused the term ‘community art’ (singular; precursor to socially engaged art) with ‘participatory arts’. My research seeks to differentiate ‘participatory arts’ and ‘socially engaged art’ in terms of specificity of intent: the first aims to ‘do’, to ‘take part in’ something (anything); the second ‘to engage in/ with social issues’. Another example of how important language can sometimes be and why we (sometimes) need definitions. Otherwise we might, as Leo perhaps does in his blog, confuse Fun Palaces with socially engaged art practice. We might then begin to ask what would happen to a Fun Palace that ‘grew… into a village, a town, or a city?’ My flippant mind thinks: #FunVillage; #FunTown; #FunCity. Why stop there? #FunWorld? Ok. Stop there.
So, I’m sticking with ‘socially engaged art’ (or even ‘social practice’) sometimes; not mentioning any of this other times; and not confusing this practice with ‘participatory arts’ or Fun Palaces. I’m sticking with definitions when needed; ditching the definitions when they’re not needed. Because, for me, we shouldn’t waste time scratching around for a better name for an accepted field of arts practice. We should develop our practice our own way in response to and together with people. Call it whatever you like. Others will always find a label.
I’ve already blogged about the event a little bit and shared my presentation but, as inequality within arts and culture has risen in prominence in the past few days, I thought I would share the film made by CREATEgloucestershire in which I “perform” my provocation.
Feedback and thoughts always welcome…
I delivered this talk about my research to the Northumbria - Sunderland AHRC Centre for Doctoral Training Student Conference on the 1st July 2015 at The BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. It’s about negating a negation – negative dialectics. It’s also about some of the potentialities that socially engaged art may be able to explore as part of broader movements for social justice and emancipation from the shackles of our present neoliberal regime.
For me, our current technocratic and bureaucratic state is, at every level, unfair, unjust, unequal – not just maintaining status quos but tightening their strange-holds upon our ways of living. The field of arts and culture is no exception. It’s mutation (under the hands of politicians, policy-makers, funders, arts and cultural institutions, financial and business backers, etc.) into The Creative Industries is deeply troubling. Horkheimer and Adorno saw this coming. Totally administered arts. Totally administered society. My work is optimistic and hopeful. The outcomes are always unknown. But it is essential that I also explore, through negative dialectics, the acts of negation that have, to a large extent, imposed outside rules and policies upon artists, people, communities in the name of progress, economics, austerity, excellence, or whatever.
Please feel free to either take a look at my presentation online here or by clicking the image below (remember to click the ‘NOTES’ button in the bottom right corner of the PowerPoint Online window); or read a transcript of my talk below.
The images in the presentation are from my five longitudinal studies as well as some of my own. They are meant to sometimes jar with the text; sometimes complement. You decide.
SOCIALLY ENGAGED ART – MARGINAL PRACTICES AND CRITICAL UTOPIAS
Hello. I’m Stephen Pritchard. This is my second year of research-based doctoral study. I am also a socially engaged arts practitioner and a curator. Five months into a six month period of paternity leave.
[I must not research.]
So, rather than present what you’ve (possibly) already heard me say before, I thought I’d try a more autoethnographic, prosaic form.
Snippets. Thread ends. Scraps of thoughts. Slices of other writing. Holes. Never wholes. Titbits of other talks. Scrambled. Jumbled. Sometimes lucid. Things from around the edges.
5 MONTHS AND NO RESEARCH. [REPEAT: I MUST NOT RESEARCH.]
THINKS: Start a little formally (to begin with…)
RESEARCH QUESTION: Can participatory art support sustainable social change? THIS WILL CHANGE.
The directions of research will not.
HERBERT MARCUSE: “How can art speak the language of a radically different experience, how can it represent the qualitative difference? How can art invoke images and needs of liberation which reach into the depth dimension of human existence, how can it articulate the experience not only of a particular class, but all of the oppressed?”
HYPOTHESIS: Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and agonistic forms of counter-hegemonic activism and/ or greater personal and social awareness, of supporting a paradigm-shift towards a world where neoliberalism is replaced by a different type of democracy that embraces social justice, encourages grassroots participation and inspires a spirit of self-directed mutual learning.
CHANGE IT! Too long. Wordy. Idealistic? NO. Utopian? Marginal practices? YES.
MOYLAN: “This alliance of margins without a center anticipates in both the personal and political dimensions the new values and the new society.”
THEORY: Deeply complex. Interdisciplinary.
Can theories of literary criticism, object relations, aesthetics, Critical Theory, political, contemporary visual culture, more, shed new light on the practice of socially engaged art? I think so.
Critical Utopias offer infinite potentialities.
METHODOLOGY: Critical theory. Dialectics. Autoethnographic – autobiography and ethnography – process AND product. Discourse analysis. Longitudinal studies. Short intensive discussions. Fragments of conversation. Gather artefacts, mementos, memories along the way.
Mountains of field notes.
Research subjects become in some ways objects: The Stove, Dumfries; Alex White-Mazzarella, global; Encounters, Totnes; Ovalhouse, London; Platform London.
Different trajectories. Similar practices AND uniquely different. All struggling to make art in an increasingly economics-driven field. Committed to being part of this research, we can all learn from each other.
PRESENTATIONS: ArtWorks conference at BALTIC, Warwick University, The Stove, and Arts Council England in London, more.
I’m lecturing at London Met and (hopefully) other universities in the autumn. I tweet. Blog.
We’re all (self) propagandists nowadays.
FIRST PAPER: A View is Always Worth It: Social Practice in Rural North East England, will be published by Taylor Francis in the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy in August.
TOM MOYLAN: “Critical utopian discourse becomes a seditious expression of social change and popular sovereignty carried out on in a permanently open process of envisioning what is not yet.”
The art world is an incredibly staid, unequal place. And art’s potentialities – like all things in life – always lie around its margins – in spaces (perhaps not yet created) where tension is always a welcome and frequent (re) visitor.
HERBERT MARCUSE: “The transcendence of immediate reality shatters the reified objectivity of established social relations and opens a new dimension of experience: rebirth of the rebellious subjectivity.”
ART AND INEQUALITY
Can art ever be truly equal? (Can anything?) Or, is art always about inequity; unfairness; elitism?
As a Critical Theorist, capitalism is always inherently unequal; insidiously alienating.
Art as commodity. Artist as a profession - division of labour. These sorts of things threaten creativity. Replacing society with individualism; with competition for resources THEY say are in short supply.
THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE, they say.
I say THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES! There are many alternatives. Tiny little alternatives. OUR alternatives. Different. NOT THEIR’S.
WE LIVE IN ONE OF THE WORLD MOST UNEQUAL COUNTRIES. Neoliberalism encourages inequality. Divide and rule. We are all increasingly, often unknowingly complicit…
Because, after all…
We’re all consumers nowadays.
Ours is a material world.
Capital is everything.
Economic value. Social value. Cultural value. Social Return on Investment. Impact. Innovation. Evaluation. Matrices. Big data. Wellbeing. Happiness. Resilience. Adaptive resilience. Sustainability. Philanthropy. Leadership. Quality. Great art. Excellence. Money. Money. Money! More and more and more…
… Oh, and CUTS!
Austerity is such a terrible word.
But, wait a minute… The Art World’s such a lovely place, isn’t it? Great Art and Culture For Everyone v2.0 anyone? The pink book? State produced bible to salve all society’s ills. Bring us all together? Art for all?
Not if THOSE IN THE KNOW have their way.
Can arts and culture think beyond economics and (nicely) enforced state policy? Beyond spurious ecosystem models. Beyond ‘making the right investments’?
SU BRADEN: “What is financed… is still seen by THEM as a means by which more people will be encouraged to enjoy and appreciate the arts on which the majority of money is already spent.”
She was talking about community art. Who get’s to decide. Limited participation.
So let’s put PARTICIPATION ON TRIAL…
Everyone’s a ‘participant’ nowadays. Aren’t THEY?
Or, following the Warwick Commission’s report on The Future of Cultural Value and its magic number – 8% – should I say WE – members of the cultural class?
Participation in the arts lacks real meaning.
Wander into a gallery, watch a play, help set up a festival, dig up a beach looking for fool’s gold, clog dance on cross-shaped shipping containers in the name of Christ, write memoirs in a timber sanctuary then watch it burn (physically and/or digitally), oh, and praise be the lanterns!
Then there’s socially engaged art, ecologically engaged art, activist art – marginal – issue-based – commonly working for social justice.
So why do I find the ‘participation in the arts’ agendas – and participatory arts in particular – so troubling, so divisive?
I suggest participation lacks intent.
For many policy makers, commissioners, arts organisations, artists, and so on, the more fun the activity, the less socially or politically engaged, the better.
PARTICIPATION BY NUMBERS. Count ‘them’. Lots of ‘disadvantaged’ people – great! Segregate them. Categorise. NEETS, ethnic minorities, older people, physically impaired, mentally ill, on and on and on. Measure them. See – they have improved! Thank The State for sending us an artist (backed by hidden ranks of arts administrators, of course). Look – all ‘their’ woes are gone. Take happy pictures for websites and Facebook and glossy publications. Pair them with a narrative penned for a pretty penny by the consultant or academic-led elite. Add graphs, tables, carefully edited anecdotes from ‘real people’ who loved taking part. Pie charts. Sprinkle spurious references to a too-oft-cited weakly defined canon. Make a film. Cost benefit analysis. Bravo! Keeps the funders happy. Useful evidence for future projects. Splendid.
Or is it? The trouble is participation in the arts – participatory arts – are products of insidious instrumentalism. State and funder-led initiatives hoping to wash away ‘their’ troubles, ‘their’ sins with a bit of taking part in some art. Sanitised, professionalised, risk-assessed to within an inch of existence. Best practice. Toolkits. Reports. Evaluations. Metrics. Big data. Fodder for never ending quasi-academic discussions about participation at which most participants are… well… people like us.
STATUS QUO. Hidden behind shallow dialogic frameworks. Another neoliberal veneer. Allowing dominant power structures to be reproduced and maintained.
Dialogic exercises and even ‘radical listening’ embed as cornerstones in participatory arts’ mission of improving practice and quality – ‘professionalising’ artists.
Anyone for CPD? Join with us. Sing ‘The Dialogic Song’. MISSIONARY ZEAL. Preach to the converted. Spread ‘our’ message. PARTICIPATE NOW! (Not ‘us’, them. New people.)
CONVERT TO ARTS PARTICIPATION NOW! (It’s something to do. Might get you a job. Might improve your wellbeing. Might improve the economy. Might even be FUNPALACES fun!)
Keeps the funders happy anyway.
IMPOSE BEST PRACTICE NOW.
Funders love it. Dovetail into burgeoning business plans.
FILE UNDER OUTREACH OR EDUCATION.
Organisations employ artists nowadays, don’t they?
They allow ‘participation’ into their programming – sometimes.
Voiceless artists should be grateful for meagre scraps as payment for their labour.
Hurrah! Complicit in the division of their labour, the institutions cheer as they further alienate artists from art!
BBC GET CREATIVE!
New Labour shuffled in neoliberal governance. Public money bought new Creative Industries citadels replete with artist and audience and participant proof defences.
Yet the price for artistic excellence is high; the pact always Faustian.
PARTICIPATION FOR ALL. Deeply divisive. Soft neoliberal governance. MERCENARIES.
Artists always bottom of the pile. Squashed silent by the tentacles of instrumentalism. With few rights and little money, who can blame artists for taking the bait?
MOBILISE. Artists and communities can mobilise for social justice. Self-organise. Art can counter the instrumentalism of state and institutions. A different, freer form of participation. Socially engaged art. Activism.
Academics and agents of the state tend to steer clear. No wonder. Social practice opposes neoliberalism in all its guises. We want change. WE ARE NOT GUILTY!
So, I suggest that participation in the arts and the trivialising forms of participatory arts practice that feed like parasites from fillets of newly institutionalised participatory arts programming are guilty of a terrible crime:
PARTICIPATING IN THE NEOLIBERAL PROJECT OF INDIVIDUALISM. THEIR ILLUSORY RAINBOW CLOAK OF ARTS AND CREATIVE INDUSTRIES SHOULD NOT FOOL YOU. LOOK CAREFULLY. IT IS ANOTHER CRUDE APPROPRIATION OF THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES. A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE.
HORKHEIMER AND ADORNO: “All reification is a forgetting.”
WHAT IS SOCIAL PRACTICE?
Little creative acts of not knowing.
Political, sometimes radically activist, acts.
Potential spaces. Safe places where dangerous new realities might grow. Grassroots. Social justice. Collective. Autonomous. Communal.
Deeply suspicious of instrumentalism and state. Outside of institutions. Around and across margins.
A practice in which art as concept is everywhere.
Unspoken, like innumerable tiny little secrets shared in moments outside the false strictures of coordinated civic time.
Messes of thread.
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…
There’s a debate within socially engaged arts about whether this unique form of practice should resist incorporation into institutions, galleries, museums, etc. or are these ‘managed’ spaces best placed to support, to provide a home for our work. The debate is taking place in some countries. The US are leading the way. It’s a debate that really cuts to the core of what socially engaged art practice is about. In the US, the arts are less well regulated; instrumentalism rules in the UK.
So how can debates emanating from the US help UK socially engaged artists situate themselves within an arts system that prioritises ‘investment’ in concrete monoliths? No grassroots seeding of diverse cultural ecosystems. UK arts and culture policy believes plonking in new cultural behemoths will stimulate growth. This is top-down approach is outdated and incredibly hierarchic. It is driven by an economics-dominated cultural policy that thinks big, spends on big, and makes big claims for Big Data. This approach is elitist and disproportionate. The expense of building, staffing and maintaining big cultural venues is massive. The thinking is predicated on a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. The thing is most people who don’t currently go to cultural venues won’t come. The same people will come. They will love it. That’s fine.
Soon the new big institutions, like the UK’s longer-in-the-tooth cultural institutions, will start scratching their heads, holding ‘What next?’ meetings over tea and croissants, researching, talking, blogging, tweeting, whatever, wondering ‘How can we engage new audiences? How do make them come?’ The answer is that, perhaps, they never will come. That doesn’t mean they don’t like art or culture or artists or even buildings. They just don’t like going to massive institutions in new powerhouses for some – not them. And, let’s face it, the type of investment in institutions new and old could be used in other ways; ways that could engage more people in the arts in less institutionalised settings or non-arts settings; ways that are perhaps open, community-focused?
Socially engaged art can provide an alternative way of thinking about and doing art. It is non-elitist and traditionally wary of cultural institutions, policy and measurement. Yet, in this field, many socially engaged artists and collectives are enticed into working within institutions; encouraged to sign up to codes and standards of professional practice written without adequate consultation. New academic courses anyone? Social practice? Yes, sir, it’s the latest thing. Work with ‘real’ people. Gritty? Yes. But we’ll teach you how to keep your hands clean. Not cheap, no. Quality counts. Think of the employment opportunities… New state funded ‘participatory arts’ projects in the most disadvantaged areas may not be (necessarily) about ‘bricks and mortar’ investment but they are about creating managerial systems and participatory institutions.
These are examples of why many socially engaged artists see themselves as opposed to cultural institutionalism. It is not the only choice. We can make our own choices. We can work with communities, within communities. We must avoid the temptation to comply. We must question the establishment in all its forms. And, to those institutions who feel they can offer funding and support in exchange for our ability to work differently with different people and be accepted within communities, we must say NO. We must retain our independence.
I believe in a mixed arts ecosystem that recognises new artists, new collectives and fledgling organisations, socially engaged arts practice, communities, people, as well as established and new organisations. We need a debate. Conflict is good. If institutional bureaucracy snuffs out flickering dissent, all that will remain is an incredibly elitist monoculture. It is natural for many policymakers, ‘arts leaders’ and ‘arts professionals’ to cheer and clap whenever something new is unveiled. It is also natural for others to question, criticise and ask for other ways of thinking. Beware of the folly of Hunting of the Snark. It always ends in Boojum.