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…

0 thoughts on “The Values Of Opposition in Socially Engaged Practice (a response to Anthony Schrag)

  1. Great Post. I’d agree with most of it and suggest we are on a similar path in where we “might be going” – and glad to share that path with you… I certainly don’t agree with everything, but perhaps that doesn’t matter if we can agree on the agonistic/conflictual/oppositional merits of ‘participatory practices’.

    One thing to clarify, I suppose: I am not denying that things are always political – especially the examples I gave, as you point out. The issue I have is the presumption of what that ‘politics’ is – Mouffe’s definition between ‘politics’ and ‘political’ was really helpful for me. Boal and Community Art and the other examples I give certainly were oppositional and political, but I think their approaches are dated and unhelpful in this day and age, simply because politics has changed. Not that politics hasn’t always been complicated – because it has – but I think that the activist approach that I have an issue with – the one that aims to create a leftist utopia that sees institutional oppression – is highly flawed when we’re ‘working with people’ – because those people are real, changeable, passionate people who live with all sorts of politics and contradictions…. and so we can’t assume that we’re working with them all for the same end….They may believe in those institutions and it would be problematic to persuade them otherwise… (I also agree with Foucault/Ranciere about power being enacted by everyone, and so to assume that institutions have power is to reproduce that power, thus creating a positive-feedback loop… but maybe that’s too academic for any real world application…) However… the point remains the same that people hold different beliefs – the social realm is plural – and it goes back to that uncomfortable idea that Neoliberals Have Rights Too. So do Torys. And everyone else that we are trying to take down at the heart of Global Capitalism. Where do their voices sit in our conversations? In our interpersonal relationships? Do we deny them because they’re ‘wrong’? You say that in the work: “Sometimes, however, the baggage can be good.” but that’s the very core of my rant: “by whose standards” are we defining “good”…. you’re right to call me out that I have a predilection to judge activist art as a form of ‘social work’ (and a poor version of it, to boot!) but I think that is because, all too often, such work has a tendency to repeat outdated binaries of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or recapitulate unhelpful dichotomies in a world that is far more nuanced and complicated. And I am also highly skeptical of this notion that art should be used (instrumentalised) to ‘take down the man’ when we ourselves, are ‘the man’. Our lives in the West are utterly based on the oppression and domination of others who keep our easy life easy – if we own cars, drink non-fair-trade coffee, if we have brought cheap clothes or cheap food, if we use oil-based products, if we’ve ever been on a plane, etc etc etc: it is our very daily lives that form the oppression of other people, alongside the the dictatorial acts of despots… So we cannot, i think, argue against tyranny and oppression if we ourselves and our daily lives are an extension – and recapitulation of that…. That doesn’t mean all is futile, its just that it complicates what it means to be political. And that’s why I have a problem with works that aim to be ‘political’ – it does not (often enough) give proper reflection to if its just re-doing ‘politics’ or if its unravelling the political seams… and unravelling those political seams includes unravelling our own.

    All that aside, as I said, glad to be on the same general direction, as we all should be…..I think if we got everyone to agree on a few more clarifications and definitions, we might be getting somewhere!!!!!

    • Hi Anthony and thanks for such a thoughtful reply.

      I think we’re pretty much at an agreement with little disagreements – that’s healthy and provides a healthy ongoing tension, I hope?

      We’ll pick this up in Liverpool no doubt…

      Oh and the large panel at Birkbeck picked our blogs and convos up in very positive ways…

      See you tomorrow.

  2. With respect to the instrumentalism inherent in my work, I’d take it ever further: instrumentalism is the very subject of the work. I prefer not to running screaming from the idea, but deal with it full-on: the state (or whoever) wants me to be a social worker!? Okay! Fine! Bring it on! Let’s see what we can do with this shit!

  3. With respect to the instrumentalism inherent in my work, I’d take it ever further: instrumentalism is the very subject of the work. I prefer not to running screaming from the idea, but deal with it full-on: the state (or whoever) wants me to be a social worker!? Okay! Fine! Bring it on! Let’s see what we can do with this shit!

  4. I’ll just contribute in dribs and drabs, if that’s okay. Re: instrumentalism, I should add, though, that I have been surprised at the degree to which artists are being deployed strictly toward social ends in the UK. It’s being taken to a whole other level, at least from where I’m watching. And I have been a little uneasy about it, but not so much about directives that artists are expected to comply with, but the homogeneity of that compliance. Maybe I’m stupid and naive, but with some nice and sly compliance, I see a ton of room to maneuver and do whatever opposing you feel is necessary.

  5. But why all the normativity? Why MUST social practice art (spa) be oppositional? What about a little of Shannon Jackson’s infrastructure avowal? If you like. Or not. But why MUST spa be either oppositional or instrumentalized? In an actual given practice on the ground, and far far away from theoretical blogs, there are so many things going on at any given instance: some oppositional, some instrumental, a lot of paradox and contradiction. in practice things are not so simply as you both make them seem.

    • Hi Darren.

      Without wishing to sound oppositional and normative, I suggest opposition creates potential space; gaps. And, without wishing to appear trite, critique can lead to expansive discussion; little shifts; perhaps eventual landslides. Renewal and revolution are the feasts of disagreement and discord…

      • darrenodonnell says:

        Hi, I’m back.

        yes, I understand that, but I was responding to the imperative ‘must’ and suggesting that spaces and gaps can also be produced by acts that are not in opposition but, rather, acts that propose alternatives. So not opposing but proposing. I’m no philosopher, but isn’t there something in opposition that requires the thing to be opposed, that even sustains it through opposing it…? Again, I’m thinking of Shannon Jackson’s infrastructure avowal, which she writes about in her book Social Works.

        See you in ’16.

  6. Hi Darren.

    Thanks for your comments. This is really interesting.

    ‘Must’ is such a definite word, isn’t it? My use of it is deliberately in that sense – as a call for dialectical thinking; a call for opposition. Your references to Shannon Jackson’s book ‘Social Works’ and to her insistence upon ‘infrastructure avowal’ rather than ‘infrastructure disavowal’ get to the crux of our differences, I think: to support state support or to oppose state support is Jackson’s argument and she, of course, favours supporting the support system but via Habermasian notions of deliberative democracy, public spheres and, ultimately rule-based consensus. The opposing position is, of course, often mistaken for anarchism – but this is incorrect. The opposing position is no state and no support. This is extreme right wing ideology. The thing is, I believe that only dialectics can elucidate situations such as this. Dialectics are NOT about either/or but rather about AND – the opposing perspectives create the tensions and gaps – the potentialities – where change can happen. The act of proposing alternatives is perhaps a shortcut – a solution-focused approach that potentially ignores (even denies) its own role in creating potential oppositions by the very act of suggesting different ways of doing things; oppositions which could feasibly include lack of radical democratic debate and dissensus. So, for me, I would reframe Jackson’s infrastructure avowal OR disavowal as infrastructure avowal AND disavowal – a dialectic – state structure versus no structure.

    For me, this dialectic leads to the potentiality of a radically different (un)structure based upon the commons and collective self-organising. Not state but local. Not homogenous but autonomous. Democracy based on dissensus not consensus. Anarchism would be another way to begin to define it.

    I agree with you that, in practice, my work veers from autonomy to instrumentalism – it is always autonomous AND instrumentalised – in all respects. That is why I refer to social practice as dialectical (in the dialogic sense described by Bakhtin). The work exists within the dialectic – making new potentialities in the gaps. I also agree that the UK has one of the most compliant (and complicit) arts and cultural systems in the world: deeply instrumentalised at every opportunity. Like you I exploit this by being ‘naughty’!

    Best wishes,

  7. darrenodonnell says:

    what’s your email? have an article that includes some of this discussion, a bit. won’t be published until april, i think. but i’ll pass it along now, if you’re interested. you can get me at: darren@mammalian.ca

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