“What sort of art do you do? …. Painting? Drawing? Sculpture?”. On Saturday evening, I was asked this question at a party. I was quite thrown by it, as usual. “Nope. Well, not really” I’d like to reply, “I’ve started to feel a bit allergic to producing things.” It feels quite a strange thing for an artist to say, and I can feel the tug of my life pre-artist, as a facilitator, coming back to haunt me. Sometimes I think I’m not an artist at all.
But recently I read “What’s the Use? Constellations of Art, History and Knowledge. A Critical Reader”. It argues that art is best understood through its dialogue with the social sphere, rather than as a ‘thing in itself’. It argues that the modernist, white cube notion of the artist freed of everything, operating in their own world apart (apart that is, from the markets associated with its products), may have had its time.
The ‘socially engaged practice’ examples in the book are inspiring: From Static Gallery's Press-Corps taking over the relationship with the press for the Liverpool biennale to their Noodle Bar / KIMICHI Co. There is Please Love Austria, Christoph Schlingensief’s imitation of Big Brother with 12 asylum seekers living inside contains in middle of tourist heart of Vienna. Or Li Mu’s dispersed gallery, bringing literature and art to his home village in China. There are long-term projects such as Tamms Year Ten – Laurie Jo’s coalition building/organising to close the Tamms Correctional supermax prison; and Freehouse in the Netherlands, radicalizing local production in a way that revitalizes places without replacing residents. Some of these artists didn’t even say they were being artists, but operated with their particular skills as an artist, as part of a system of interventions.
What all these projects, and many other examples (including some great ones about art galleries re-thinking their purpose as centres of change), have in common, is that they are not just finger pointing or highlighting something as if the artist is not involved in (or worse, floats above and superior to) the problems. In these examples, the artists are intimately involved in the situation – they take part in the complex web of issues and processes – and their art is both the creation of the situation, and the exposure of what they and others do within that situation. They create a dynamic in which people – including the artist(s) and art institutuions – mirror themselves.
To do this, they design a system of change or intervention with the aim of learning. Estonian artist Puusemp (whose intervention-as-art in the political system resulted in his tenure as mayor of Rosendale, NY) says: “Deliberate changes in political structure don’t just happen. They are planned and occur because they seem inevitable. To make changes seem inevitable requires a clear structure and a systematic process”.
Paul Sullivan, co-director of Static Gallery in Liverpool calls it the Architecture of Flow: “The effectiveness of the project is not based on the smug disclosure of the dubious if not deplorable underpinnings of [the art] institution while nevertheless living off and gaining cultural capital in the institution. Rather it gets involved in the problems that arise due to its interpolations into the flows, constituting a learning experience: Seeking to learn how it operates in a necessarily relational world.”
In a tiny (as in teeny weeny) way, I feel I’ve started to do this in a few projects – Llif (Flow) and a People’s Map of Llandudno and Merched Chwarel – because these all touch elements of understanding flow. Infact, this has been part of my artistic statement for some time. But I haven’t ever gone to the next level of being explicit about the processes, the (power) dynamics, the exposure of the system in which we are operating, within which I am complicit. And I haven’t designed the process. And I haven’t asked myself Tania Brugera’s question: “Is [this] art to inform, analyse or transform a situation?”
How to design a process, as an artist?
Designing a process as a facilitator is something I’m very familiar with. I used to do it every day, and I used to train others – and organisations (locally, nationally and internationally) on how to do it. It is a bit of a revelation though, to think of applying it to my artistic practice. It turns out that many artists that I’ve liked for years, have some suggestions as to how to do it:
Suzanne Lacy for example, runs ‘mapping the terrain’, a graduate programme in public practice and relational aesthetics on how to effectively operate in the public sphere. She suggests you need to consider:
- What are the politics
- Systems analysis
- Engagement strategies (protest vs consensus vs 1:1 organising)
- Background information on a topic.
Mariam Ghani’s practice is based on three types of analysis:
- Historical use of a place
- Contemporary understanding of the place – position in contemporary mythology of us, landscape
- Phenomonological experience – what it’s like to be a body in the place.
And Allan Kaprow (Fluxus etc), in his shift to ‘unart’ suggested artists should ‘work in unrecognizable ie non-art, modes but present the work in recognizable art contexts eg a pizza parlour in a gallery’ [as in Static’s Noodle Bar/KIMICHI]. There are four aspects to his framing:
- The genre or issue at hand
- The setting
- The participants
- The purpose.
And the other thing that underpins all these approaches, is that if something that is successful, carries on, is adopted by others.... like the Freehouse project in the Netherlands.
So if I put these together with my facilitation/process design experience, I come up with this:
1. The Context: The background/ The context/systems analysis / What are the politics / the setting / historical use / contemporary understanding / phenomenological experience
2. The purpose (content): The genre or issue at hand
3. The purpose (process): To inform/analyse/transform?
4. The plan: Engagement strategies (protest vs consensus vs 1:1 organising) / the participants.
Having just completed a residency in Llandudno, I realized that all the information I’d gathered was just step 1: it was all about gathering contextual information. The reason it feels incomplete, is that the natural next step would be to move onto steps 2 and 3.
So with this in mind, I was lucky enough to meet with Janet Haworth, at the final event in my residency (a wonderful ‘misguided walk in Llandudno’ led by mythogeographer, Phil Smith - you can go on the walk physically or virtually here). We are both interested in water and flooding, and it was one of the key ‘themes’ emerging from my residency in Llandudno. We sat down together, and identified a potential project: Llandudo: Venice of the North: Past, present and future waters. The idea would be to try to activate- and make transparent- a ‘whole system’ of awareness, activity and decision-making around all water-related issues in Llandudno. We’d go about it in two phases: the first, establishing a ‘Ministry of Water’, drawing in evidence, experience of water-related issues (working with artists, poets and everyday photos and experiences of residents and visitors), and the second, some kind of dialogue process through which we design a new system of dealing with the rising waters, poor drains and water consumption.
We have put a proposal together for Dwr Cymru (Welsh Water) to consider for support. I have no idea whether this will go anywhere, but it was an interesting way to start to think about future art projects…