Anthony Schrag writes...
I am a practice-based PhD fellow at Newcastle University and my research explores the intersection of the institution, the artist and the public in the realm of ‘participatory arts’.
This research is relevant for two main reasons – firstly, as this genre becomes more established (and popular), there is a need to explore how participation projects are being implemented and to what end. As local authorities now fund the vast majority of participatory art projects, this presents the dangerous possibility that many participation projects are being used as a form of social engineering and as an extension of state policy: consider the debate surrounding the problematic term ‘inclusion’ and how art was instrumentalised in its favour.
Alongside this, publicly-funded, policy-enacting agencies (museums/galleries) must be seen to fund projects that are safe, nice and good for everyone, because as a public body, they cannot be seen to fund projects that are dangerous, exclusionary and based on the selfish needs of a few. This creates a ‘state aesthetic’ for public participation projects and the participation works become limited by this inclusionary aesthetic. It is my contention that projects that are ‘safe, nice and good for everyone’ do not present good practice of participation, but in fact replicate a dominate hegemony: they are not critical. Criticality comes in the exploration of new and uncomfortable knowledge – it is dangerous and it is often not ‘nice’.
As such, as a practitioner, my work aims to explore and critique the intentions of institutions commissioning participatory practices in order to ensure the projects are ethically sound and critically relevant. Often this means critiquing the very institutions that employ me.
For example, several years ago, the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Glasgow was presenting its 3rd biannual Social Justice programme exploring human rights and contemporary arts. The theme of that project was sectarianism, and specifically how it played out within the realm of Glasgow. A historically contentious subject to address due to the cultural divisions that run along both religious geographical and class divisions, the project had an instrumentalised approach with the intention of having an ameliorative impact on those who were to experience the programme.
The design of the Social Justice programmes usually featured a larger, gallery-based exhibition at GoMA surrounded by smaller outreach and education projects that were more participatory in nature. Through an open call for a socially-engaged artist, I was selected to lead one of these outreach/education programmes that would work with youth based in the east of the city via a series of workshops to explore the topic. The project was run in parallel with a writer-in-residence, and the selected writer – Magi Gibson – and I devised an over-lapping project that looked at ‘menchies’ (a Scots word for graffiti tags) as something that was related to text-based work, but also to visual art. We felt it also lay at the intersection of geography and identity, which were the salient notions of the theme of sectarianism. It very quickly became apparent to Magi and me that the issues the youth faced seemed only superficially based in conflicts of sectarianism and were more the outcomes of systemic poverty, and our art project – indeed, any art project – could not ameliorate this social inequality effectively. Ethically, too, I was uncomfortable with this realisation, since I was being paid a handsome sum to work with the unemployed, or children of the unemployed.
As such, I felt there was a disjunct between the policy intentions of the project (to address and help fix issues of sectarianism within Glasgow) and the reality of those who were the recipients of the project (those living in poverty).
I therefore focused on how to explore this mismatch, and instead of attempting an ameliorative intervention into the dispossessed youth, I instead attempted an intervention into those who instigated the project. Called The Legacy of City Council Arts Projects, I invited the curators, advisory board, civil servants and representatives from the charitable trust who guided the project to come to GoMA to meet and discuss the “mismatch between place and policy”, but when they arrived, I had arranged a ‘kidnapping’ of these cultural workers and bundled them into waiting taxis which took them out to one of the areas of the project where they were sat in a muddy field, surrounded by the residents of the housing estate. The aim was to have this discussion, but have it in a place that was away from the marble and neoclassical structures of power and instead in the very real, disrupt-able, cold and noisy location that was the everyday reality of those citizens involved with the project – to elide ‘place and policy’ in order to unravel its mismatch.
This project occupies a central position on from a string of examples of my work where I, as a practitioner, have tried to ensure the intentions/policies of the project are revealed via the work to both the participants and the institutions. It is only through this revelation of the core policies – often unspoken or even unconsidered – that both practitioners (and institutions) can create ethical and critically relevant participation projects.
However, this contention presents a conundrum to a freelance (participatory) artist: how can we be critical of the institution that signs our cheques – and assume to be ever employed again?
This conundrum opens up a series of questions: What can institutions do to be open to critique? What mechanisms do institutions employ for self-reflexivity? How do we find out if institutions really want to make good participatory artworks, or if they just want to tick boxes? Most importantly, how can both artists and institutions work together to examine the policies that structure their work?
Ultimately, for any of these questions to be answered – and indeed for good participatory art projects to emerge – the artist needs to be brave enough to have teeth, and the institution needs to be brave enough to be bitten.
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Hi Anthony, I too am researching a PhD into participatory arts ... and have similar feelings. My research is about evaluation of projects, an issue which I feel participatory artists have dodged for a long time, leaving the Arts Council to fill the vacuum. Have you seen Matarasso's paper 'All in this together: the depoliticisation of community arts in Britain 1970-2011' (it's online) which is on similar lines to you - and Paola Merli's critique of his Use or Ornament?, Merli, P (2002) Evaluating the social impact of participation in arts activities International Journal of Cultural Policy (8)pp107-118.
As an artist working with museums, I recently had a proposal turned down because it was 'too political, too controversial', but it took them nearly a year to actually say that... Good luck with your work, Sue Challis www.suechallis.co.uk
PS I really like your website esp tug of war, ship of hope and mistaken vision - but now I have to do some more PhD before I look at the rest ... fab!!
yes I want to know what happened in the field... the cliff hanger is a killer!
Apart from that... I think you're dealing with really important issues (thanks for that!), and in my view we (as a sector) are way too uncritical of our ethical frameworks and consistencies (or inconsistencies) - it's hard to be the one to question well-meaning work, but I think we should all be doing that all the time.
I'm in touch with artists in Mexico, where instrumentalisation of arts to Government or State ends has a clear and unashamed history. Maybe we're a bit naive here? If you want to know more about the Mexican thing, get in touch!
thanks for your piece :)
We've just finished a fascinating project led by David Gunn of The Incidental who also has an interesting perspective - including questioning the role of the artist in delivering "interventions". Check out his blog: http://www.theincidental.com/blog/pontification-prevarication/
As a result we had an amazingly original arts project and exhibition that has encouraged both us, as project producers, and our partners at the National Museum of Wales to rethink the way in which we deliver our projects.
HI all - thanks so much for the comments and the insights! very much appreciated.
I've posted a few more expansions on some of these thoughts my blog - http://conflictsocialconflict.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/the-artist-a... (WARNING: RUDE WORD ALERT!)
I've been reading up on Latin American projects - be very interested to find out more and thanks for the links to The Incidental.
If anyone wants to get in touch directly, please do so at firstname.lastname@example.org - I can also let you know what happened in the field... but, its not as exciting as its made out to be... !!
Ps Sue - check out this amazing lady - http://sophiehope.org.uk/research/ - download her PhD, which has some great research on evaluation.
Dear Anthony and all,
An interesting read. The last couple of paragraphs struck a chord with me in relation to a piece of work I have just completed at Trinity Laban for ArtWorks.
The project brought together a range of participatory artists and 'project managers' to discuss and un-pick the relationship dynamic between these two groups.
I emphasise the need for organisations and project managers/producers need to be critical and ethical when commissioning participatory work particularly if the project is aiming to impact on specific (sometimes assumed) political or social issues. But, of course, I would expect all artists working in any participatory setting to do the same.
Art is a vehicle to uncover the truth.
Addressing the Dynamic's original aim was see whether project managers could do to more to support their participatory artists. It became clear that the most important thing they could do was to facilitate an environment where open and honest conversations can take place and two-way feedback is planned and normalised. You say that artists need to have 'teeth' and organisations must be brave enough to be 'bitten'; isn't this true for the reverse as well? Interestingly, the research highlighted that Project Managers often feel that their feedback is met with resentment and defensiveness from artists.
Trust and mutual respect for what both artist and project manager can bring to the project must exist so that continual conversations around quality, values, vision and ethics can be had. Voicing different perspectives ensures everyone's on the same page.
As the 'employer' or 'commissioner' the initial responsibility for creating this collective accountability probably needs to come from the Project Manager/institution. As Anna Cutler writes in her provocation on this website:
'In all instances, it seems important that we communicate our values so that artists and participants can choose to work with us, or not. These values are about creating agency for all of us, to learn, opening up a wide and divergent understanding of art that participants are supported to construct for themselves.'
What the Addressing the Dynamic project highlighted most of all, was that the relationship between artists and project managers is a complex one. It is hoped that the report can be used by organisations (and artists) as a tool kit. A resource, to help them re-think their approach to their professional relationships - ensuring that the critical conversations you talk about become a normal part of devising all arts participatory work.
Thanks for the feedback and the link to the project (and report) which seems like an excellent tool-kit. I think you're wholly right about artists also needing to be 'bitten' etc - it is a necessity for the critique and trust to be mutual and egalitarian
I think what I was trying to get at - albeit in such a limited word count! - was not so much the HOW (the practice and the practicalities of the working relationship between artists and institutions in general - not just project managers) but the concepts and the ideology behind WHY we are working with each other. I think examples like your project and report are excellent ways to talk about the practicalities, but I wonder how we could make a tool kit that spoke to the conceptual side of the processes of working within the participatory realm?
Why are we working with people? To what end? What politics and power dynamics are we recapitulating or critiquing? I've written about this breifly here: http://conflictsocialconflict.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/the-artist-a... - I think this is what I was trying to get at with a discussion about 'biting the hand that feeds' - often, the political reasonings institutions get funded or even artists get hired or even that project managers have jobs are not properly interrogated, and artistis (and institutions) should be brave enough and supported enough to ask the difficult (conceptual and political) questions.
I also think you nailed it when you suggest that the relationship between artists and institutions is a complex one - I also wouldn't have it any other way! I think that complexity can be fruitful and incredible, when both parties enter the relationship with an open heart and mind, as it sounds like your project mangers and artists do!