I want to use my blog to here organise some thoughts I have after last nights Touchy Feely presentations and discussion. I hope those practitioners more directly involved in relational or socially engaged practice will forgive me if I am rehashing thoughts you have already talked to death amongst yourselves. I feel like a visitor in a country under slight unrest. I apologise wholeheartedly if this is relational aesthetics 101.
Last night the most burning issue seemed to be about outcome. How do you record an ephemeral work for reportage back to those who funded it? And how remarkable that most artists speaking have, at times or all the time, not felt comfortable reporting the negative aspects of their social engagement, instead packaging the projects in the aftermath as something that more resembles the utopian glimmers of their initial, very genuine, aspiriation.
I find this a little suprising as I have always believed it was an important step in moving forward and in my small experience (I stepped away from the funding circuit some years ago and am only just starting to consider hopping back on the gravy train) reports of the ‘failures’ as well as the ‘successes’ were always a welcomed, and I always assumed, expected, part of the acquittal process.
Last night I raised the subject of ‘community arts’ as opposed to ‘art that engages with the community’. I trailed off a bit without making any particular point as, to some degree, I was thinking out loud. But I was certainly not moving to suggest that one was the right way to go about things and the other wrong… I think where I was going with that subject is it that it seemed a general consensus that it is very hard to get the genuine, bona-fide public to actually engage as you would wish which is often what leads to the ‘failures’ (we also discussed the impotence of the terms ‘success’ and ‘failure’ last night but I use them here for their convenience.) that occur. The participants instead become the invested art community, friends and family rather than the broader community.
When I began my work of the last 10 years where I have focussed almost exclusively on the self, it was in part because I felt very much that artists were mistrusted by the non-arts public. That we were viewed as tricksters, charlatans and scammers (I think I hoped I could win back some general-public pals to the cause of culture by giving up something of myself instead of asking something from them). I think that could also contribute to an explanation of why this mode of working is on the rise. We want to contribute positively. We want to be seen as contributing positively. Anyway… I raised the community arts subject last night because I think in the shift from ‘community arts’ to ‘art that engages with the community’ that there has been another shift where the responsibility of storysharing/data collection and presentation has moved from the public themselves to the artist, and that makes it harder to disprove these negative views of artists and our utopian experiments within the community. The term I used a lot last night and in the wake of the Iteration Again project is ‘colonialism’.
While I have to believe that the sentimentality of the artists impetus is entirely genuine, I do feel that the appearance of ‘colonialism’ must be very carefully negotiated and shed because of the way it pushes potential participants/audience away. And I do believe something may be able to be gleaned from the field of community arts practice to assist in that negotiation. Because regardless of whether artists begin to talk about and celebrate the failures as well as the successes, unless we view each artwork as the experiment it is, learn from those failures and take that knowledge forward, there is a distinct possibility, as Amy Spiers suggested, that artists may become trapped in a cycle of wishing to do good in a world that simply does not want their version of what ‘good’ is.
I may be wrong, but when discussion turned to funding last night, I got the impression that, largely in this mode of practice, funding goes towards the cost of documentation. Well produced photographs, video or a publication that asserts the artwork took place. If it is true that the failures fail to be reported and investigated because one feels responsibility to the funding body to present only a positive outcome, then surely it is better to dispense with the idea of funding a document at all. Just make a work. Let it be over when it is over except in your thoughts and words and the way it goes on to inform your later practice. I suspect I’m oversimplifying the problem but perhaps, as in Sarah Rodigaris case, the work remains truly ephemeral. It just happened. The work for anyone but Sarah or those she encountered must remain an elusive concept and we must simply trust that it occured.
By this I don’t mean to naively suggest that projects centered in human interaction should cost nothing to produce. Just that perhaps this problem might be simpler than it appears. When I was a child and wanted something that cost I found ways to make the money or if you like, to fund the project. It might serve us well to revisit this mode of operation as Sarah did in selling off her belongings. Sell something. Make something someone needs. And when we do apply for funding, rather than focussing on publications we should consider instead, applying for an area of the project where ‘value’ is more concrete- the wages of the artists involved. I know the artists time and talent is often devalued in favour of other aspects to enable a project to take flight on limited funds, but it should be non-negotiable. It shouldn’t require documentation or a successful outcome, merely a well-kept timesheet. Success or failure, receiving a wage will still help you move forward to the next project. But I have digressed…
At the risk of sounding like a sudden evangelical Sarah Rodigari fan, I was cheered by her reluctance to give too much away of what occurred on her journey. She seemed protective of the people she encountered, who became enmeshed in her artwork along the way and the more I digest what she has made and what she has to say, the more I believe that this may be a little lacking – that is to say, the lack is an understanding that when you are engaging with the public for the purposes of creating an artwork, those who do enter into the role of participant are doing so very generously and we need to consider more carefully what they receive in return for their engagement and what we do with the material sourced from/through them. And this is outside of any University driven ethics requirement, but rests simply in human responsibility to other humans.
Unless we are particularly resourceful, we pay in some way for every other material we might use as an artist. How are we paying for this material? How are we paying the public for their engagement? We can’t be naive and ignore the fact that a successful project is often our stepping stone to the next opportunity. But how are those giving time and sharing their lives being valued and compensated? I don’t believe that answer is that participants should be paid (I was uncomfortable with Hobart artist’s James Newitt’s 2009 work $1 for your story because of the named value it put upon the participants contributions) but I do think consideration of the possibility that neither the artist nor a funding body entirely owns the content (their likeness, experience, words or emotion) that people contribute (whether or not they are anonymous) is an important ethical idea that must be given greater consideration in documentation, reportage and promotion. The art project merely becomes a facility where this data is stored and respect for the data and it’s true owner must not be forgotten.
Perhaps this has not become as big an issue as it (arguably) should, because as many pointed out last night, the reluctance of the general public to become involved means that so often the demographic of participants is made up of friends, family, other artists; people with a personal investment in the success of the project. But if this issue was to garner greater consideration, perhaps the desired participants might not be so hard to source, projects might have more genuine outcomes, experiments might have more accurate results that we can learn from…
What do you think? I don’t know if I’m right about any of this but I certainly wonder about all of it.
I am glad to have all that off my chest and in safe blog storage for later rumination because tonights Touchy Feely panel discussion examines the suggestion that ‘Art should be instrumentalised to make a better world.’ and requires me to think about different things.
Now, hopefully, I can go talk on topic without doing boring dredges back to last nights yak-yak that send everyone snoozing and are alarmingly ‘off-point’.
I shall hit the ‘publish’ button and go form my thoughts about that right now…