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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