'Three Years/Three Years' by Anthony Schrag...

This is a reblog of a post by participatory artist Anthony Schrag that's incredibly important to our notions of defining our field(s) of practice(s) not as 'a community of one voice' but an alliance of multiple voices. Many of us share Anthony's frustrations about professionalisation and attempts to impose a false hegemony on socially engaged/ participatory arts...

Serendipity or coincidence meant that the three years of my PhD coincided with the three years of the Artworks Pathfinder projects, and, being in Scotland, I have attended all three Scottish conferences. I grew with them and, like youthful playmates who find themselves staring into a unknown future abyss together, I find myself at a personal and professional juncture, similar, perhaps to the state of the Artworks project finds itself now. As I am now also in the stages of wrapping up my research into notions of participation, I too feel the looming ‘what next?’ question sidle up to me at vulnerable moments.

Even though I occupy a position external to Artworks Scotland, over the past three years I felt very welcomed into the discourse it espoused, and that sense of inclusivity has been gratefully accepted. Over time, I’ve also noticed my own shift from a novice outsider with high hopes, to an invited angry provocateur, to a jaded dissenter, hopelessly clinging on to notions that things will change. I now find myself wondering how the Artworks project has influenced me and I have influenced it, and how my future will be different once I finish my research: will that future have been altered because of Artworks? What do I do with my own inquiry into participation, now that formal structure of support is ending? Do the questions that we asked just fade away? How can it have meaning? And, as the conference drew to close yesterday and we were left ruminating on a professional ‘what next?’ I had my own thoughts about the day – and the future.

Cynics and Sing-a-longs: The choice to include mostly theatre/music folks in the presentations is probably an apt representation of the populations involved in ‘participatory works.’ However, more numbers do not necessarily equal a unified whole: such is the problem with ‘democracy’ – the loudest and largest get to speak for the lesser few. This does not bode well for a ‘community of practice’. David Camlin’s Dialogical Sing-a-long went down a storm for some, but for myself and an embarrassed few (mostly visual artists, it must be said) we sat cringing at our tables, rolling our eyes at such ‘kumbaya’ tactics. Its funny to consider now, but it reveals a deeper dissonance that has still yet been unpicked: the difference in intentions and methodologies that do not link us. Yes, we are, as Susanne Burns suggested in her closing speech, all linked by matters of ‘collaboration’ but the focus on our similarities at the cost of our differences is highly problematic. It would be equivalent to reducing doctors down to ‘those interested in hygiene’, or physicists to ‘those that use mathematics’. That we are linked purely by ‘collaboration’ is possibly too simplistic. Yes, we do all collaborate, its true: but things also draw us apart, and it is this difference – this ‘how are we unlike each other’ that never seems to be given enough attention. This becomes problematic if we’re being presented as a unified whole of ‘participatory practitioners’.

Internals and Externals: Too often in these sorts of conferences, we rely on those we know and the conversation becomes a bit incestuously deformed. Should the conference co-ordinator also be speaking about her research? I personally think not: it warps the findings to be quite limited. Often, we stay in this narrow band because it is easiest when planning, but if indeed the project is about the breadth of participation, I wonder to what extent the research is skewed because we have invited the right kind of people to attend. That ‘right’ kind of people aligns with ‘open-space’ seminars, but the issue with those is that it becomes justification for a narrow focus; for not doing the hard work of getting the wrong sort of people involved. What of those artists who could not attend because they couldn’t afford the entry fee; those participants who had to go to work; those dissenters who had awful experiences with participatory artists; those gallery administration staff who had to stay and open the buildings? The grist and meat of participation comes in the minutia of projects, and the same is true for research: what have we missed by not seeking out other voices? Are we patting ourselves on the back while ignoring those outside the room?

Language and Voice: I am amazed, after 3 years, that we are still no where nearer to defining what we mean by ‘participation’. 60% of me thinks this is a good thing. I would hate to reduce the diversity of practice into narrow headings and definitions. The other 40% gets filled with a vibratory rage that we use a single word to talk about many very, very different things, with very different intentions and desired outcomes. Is it correct to elide applied participatory works that hope to change and benefit communities with the transgressive, abusive-like works of Santiago Sierra, for example? If I believe it is ethically problematic to assume that participatory projects should ‘help’ other people, should I be thrown-together who feels their work should have an ameliorative impact? Education and participation are still confounded, despite meaning – and intending – very different things; No distinction is made on those that undertake ‘participation’ as paid work to supplement their practice, and those whose entire artistic career is participatory; there remains no challenge to the professionalisation of an industry vs the call for artists to be professional.

This latter, perhaps is the biggest hurdle for me: is there a difference between a professional participatory artist and a professional artist? Creative Scotland has released a report that grew from the Artworks project titled: Developing a Foundation for Quality Guidance for arts organisations and artists in Scotland working in participatory settings. Does, I wonder, Painting have a Foundation for Quality Guidance? Or Sculpture? Or Video art? In what ways are we hemming ourselves in with this professionalisation? In conferences, this lack of a specific definition is perhaps quite useful, because we can be dialogic about meanings: we can argue and unravel what we mean and discover our differences. We can speak to each other. The problem is comes when these conferences lead to reports: reports that are not able to unravel this diversity of meaning and intention because their purpose is to distill meaning down into bite-sized mouthfuls. These reports – especially because the practice is so new and many do not know much about it – are often then are taken as fact: the research is taken as the be-all-and-end-all of information into participatory settings. They will, no doubt, be implemented as policy.

And this when the ‘what next?’ becomes frightening. Because, if I do not fit into the categories of the assumed notion of participation, do I cease to exist as a participatory artist? What if I have a different notion of quality then the framework of the report? Am I then a bad participatory practitioner? If the written documents are not clear about this lack of a cohesive and shared notion of quality; of the diversity of practice; of differing ethical frameworks; of the multiplicity of intentions; of the plethora of desires we all have in ‘working with people’ then they are bound to exclude. If we are indeed trying to come together in a “community of one voice” how can we build it into a continuum that really can accommodate the gamut of practices?

For my part, I think this must come in a recognition – in written language – that the practice is not fixable into one thing: I know this is often said, but it is not expressed nor truly communicated. It is not explicitly shown in the conferences and reports that it is a practice which incorporates those that wish to help and those that wish to transgress; those who desire a political imperative and those that want to entertain; those that want to align themselves to social work and those that find such a proposition patronising and ethically problematic; those that merely undertake participatory projects as it supplements their non-collaborative practice, and those whose very ethos is a co-authorial approach. We cannot be lazy and hope that these differences are implicit and understood. They are not. This is evidenced by the very discussions we are still having – after 3 years – about what it all means to work with people. If we, as a community of one voice, cannot collectively agree on this continuum of practice, how can we ever assume others will understand?