Art in Service: Quality - coming to terms with the social in socially engaged art

Art in Service: Quality - coming to terms with the social in socially engaged art

Work described as “in service” to a group of people, requires artists to be able to describe their relationship to that group and ramifications if the work of art fails, suggests guest blogger Maggie Cavallo.

This is a re-blog with the author's kind permission.  It was originally published as part of a conversation entitled rt in Service - a series of texts on socially-engaged art with Big Red & Shiny and Now +.  See the original article here and the others in the series at the bottom of that page.

Read More

'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?

This is not a love song – lessons the arts might learn from football


This is a blog first posted by Stephen Pritchard on

It's about how the arts could perhaps learn a little from grassroots football.  Comments please...

I’m going over to the other side
I’m happy to have and not to have not
Big business is very wise
I’m inside free enterprise
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
Not a love song
I’m adaptable, I’m adaptable
I’m adaptable and I like my new role
I’m getting better and better
And I have a new goal
I’m changing my ways where money applies
(This is not a love song, Public Image Limited, 1983)

What can the arts learn from football? A lot about developing a connected culture in which children, amateurs and professionals see clear links and participate/ spectate on every level, Nina Simon wrote recently. The world of football is similar to the arts in many ways: taking part, audiences, celebrity and anonymity, economic and intrinsic benefits/ values, large costly buildings and jumpers for goal posts, health and wellbeing, and more. Oh, and let’s not forget finance: public subsidy and big business sponsorship. There’s also, at the ‘top level’, The World Cup and Venice Biennial. Lots of similarities, then. Not all good.

What football does well is undoubtedly present a cultural phenomenon that is accessible at every level. A sport where even the premiership elite are, well, not really that elitist. A game where kids playing in a back lane or park and blokes with hangovers kicking each other as much as the ball are respected. Professionals regularly going into schools for training sessions and awards presentations as well as helping smaller clubs and amateurs fund raise. Football can also be ‘viewed’ live in world class stadiums or patchy local pitches and watched on TV at home or down the pub. Yes, costs of attending a premiership game are prohibitively high for many people; as is a subscription to Sky Sports. But anyone can take part and you don’t hear accusations of amateurism or that’s ‘not football’. Some may say, ‘football is different from art’. Of course, on one level, this is true; yet, on another level, the two activities are similar, essential aspects of our lives.




Like football, the arts are engrained into our daily existence – whether ‘high’ or ‘low’ arts. They both have tiered, hierarchical structures too. The problem is that elitism in the arts means that people taking part in the arts at different levels are perceived of very differently – from billionaire art buyers to attendees of exclusive theatre to student art shows to people sitting watching Corrie. Artistic excellence is paramount at almost every level for many in the arts. It is the winning, not the taking part, that matters. There is little space for amateurism, volunteering (except as ways to keep wage bills down), or even socially engaged arts practice. These are the realms of ‘not arts’ to many within the arts elites (for they are plural, legion). Yet, ‘amateur’ art, art in schools, community art, voluntary art, social practice, etc. offer great experiences and pleasure to many people. The problem is that there is little option for progression (for many) and derision lurks everywhere.

It is therefore essential that we remember that the arts too were once much more connected to life; less elitist than is the case in our present cultural milieu. Artisans were performers and producers, an integral part of everyday life. Festivals were commonplace and many people who may now feel disenfranchised by much of ‘the arts’ today took part. They were key events in the yearly calendar for everyone in communities – they had special meanings and marked special times. Streets and markets were often venues for free theatre and, even when theatre buildings opened, the ‘groundlings’ still formed a substantial sector of the audience of many Elizabethan plays. Sports, like rugby and football, were also integral to the lives of many people. Our neoliberal consumer society today often forgets its past. So too does much of our contemporary arts world. But sports, like football, tend to hold closer ties to their histories as integral to their on-going narratives.

platform


The darker side of the arts and football (and many other areas of our contemporary lives) is undoubtedly philanthropy and sponsorship. This is not to say that all giving is bad. It is just a warning of the dangers of ‘tagging-on’ brands to activities for purely commercial gain or, worse still, to deliver marketing messages that directly conflict with the activity being ‘supported’. This will be a topic for another post so, for now, let’s just consider BP’s financial support for Tate and The British Museum or tobacco sponsorship of artist residencies in the Caribbean or investment bank and 2008 financial crash ‘Titan’ Merrill Lynch’s project with Tate aimed at regenerating local areas and making places safer. This type of activity is all about ‘realising corporate responsibility outcomes’ – something Arts and Business are promoting heavily as a means to increase philanthropic giving to the arts at the moment – but it mires the arts in corporate complicity. This is different from professional football’s out-and-out clear marketing-for-money deals, not to mention the often essential small-scale sponsorship of local amateur teams by local small businesses who are happy to support their team in return for a little extra local exposure. However, football sponsorship can be dangerously unethical too. Think about the World Cup 2014 with big corporate sponsors including Budweiser, Coca Cola and MacDonalds. The message: play or watch football – drink alcohol and fizzy drinks and eat unhealthy food. Or Wonga and their shirt sponsorship of Newcastle United – buy your season ticket and pay for it with a thousands of percent loan you might end up never repaying! The danger for the arts is that, not only will the ethical and moral concerns about current big arts sponsors affect the independence and critical essence of the arts, but the drive for philanthropic giving may lead to Wonga sponsoring participatory art projects in ‘disadvantaged’ communities, etc.

Nonetheless, forgetting the similar drives for both the arts and football to become increasingly commercialised (at least at their ‘top’ levels), there are, perhaps, lessons the arts might glean from football. It has retained its grassroots up appeal and ethos. Think of (local Toon legends) Gazza, Peter Beardsley, etc. They, like many other people who managed to become professional footballers, had difficult upbringings but became famous (not always just for footballing achievements). They started out playing at school; they were encouraged by sports teachers and (sometimes) parents. They were developed in volunteer-ran ‘boys clubs’ with little funding but loads of commitment to the young lads having a chance in (footballing) life. Professional clubs went there to find ‘new talent’. The professionals paid their dues, coming back to help raise money for the clubs and to help train new generations of possible future pros. Even those who ‘didn’t make it’ still found new friendships and enjoyment in taking part and trying; some stayed to volunteer to help keep the clubs running. If only the same thing could be said about much (not all) of the fractured ‘arts world’ in the UK right now. As Nina Simon pointed out, until fifty years ago soccer was derided in the US – now it is a sport that is increasingly becoming an important national game. It built itself up through grassroots engagement and commitment to accessibility for all. Perhaps we in the UK now need to think seriously about rebuilding the arts from the roots up?