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Tracing Change

This article sets out to consider art as a catalyst for change. Art projects that are actively exploring aspects of social engagement will be examined in the wider context of UK Government policy that endorses the arts as a tool central to regeneration and social change. This will then be followed by a look at the legacy of these projects both within social thought and art practice.
This article is intended as a step towards both comprehending and complicating the politics and art histories that lead to particular projects, rather than an attempt to cover all aspects of socially engaged work.
New Labour cultural policy advocates art being used as a tool for social improvement. Blair's art-friendly ideology can be seen to echo the discourse of the earliest debates on arts function for social good, as promoted by thinkers such as William Morris. Emphasis on residencies and art in the community in current cultural policy can also be directly linked to the practices of community artists in the seventies in Britain. These projects remained marginalised during the market led 80s and are only now resurfacing in many different guises. With the incredible resurgence of the cultural value of the arts with the Young British Artists and "Cool Britannia" in the mid nineties, the government quickly realised the capital gained through promoting the "creative industries" as one of the UK's third largest economies (1).
Tessa Jowell, the British Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, recently stated:
"The arts have an intrinsic merit and should be valued in their own right. Their enjoyment is an end in itself. But the arts also have the power to affect change, helping us to build a more secure and more prosperous future[...] If you want to tackle racism, you can do so creatively through the arts; if you want to improve literacy, you can do so effectively working with the arts; and if you want to regenerate a rural or urban environment, then arts projects have demonstrated their power to affect change." (2)
This belief in tackling social issues through creative methodologies is a basis for community art projects, allowing art to facilitate and alleviate a collective concern. The danger is that this discourse has begun to over-simplify practice that refutes such responsibility to "change" and increases derision from an art world suspicious of "engaged" practices. Policy has had a noticeable impact on how art is used and perceived within the UK. New arts institutions have appeared in economically under served communities and public art projects have become commonplace across the country (3).
Groups of artists such as the Artists Placement Group (4) have been using art as a method of direct communication and key to social and political environments since the 1970s. The embracing of these values by the current government, however, has lead to further rebellion and resistance by artists and collectives today who value the importance of remaining artist led rather than policy driven.
As roles shift and the artist becomes more like a civil servant, the tendency demonstrated by the art community has been to withdraw, where possible, from public funding and maintain an opposition to the State and its embodiment of control, regulation and hidden agendas. In the preface to the book "Art for All?" Ingrid Swenson states, "The amount of money the State should give to support culture seems to us secondary to the question of why there should be public support at all." (5)
Art practices sometimes labeled as "socially engaged," have developed from this political environment where everyone is now considered an artist and where "everyone has an opportunity to develop his or her creativity." (6) These practices tend to step beyond being oppositional to the State, and engage critically in acts of altruism and service by harnessing projects to set up platforms for potential change through collaboration.
"Team Build" (October 2001) was organised to invite debate about the role of the artist when being invited into the work place to effect change. (7) The project emerged from conversations between B+B and Anna Best on the potential and problematic of Anna Best's "Year of the Artist'" residency at [a-n] The Artists Information Company (2001). (8)
Best organised "Away Weekend" for the staff of [a-n], which involved paint balling and playing physical and mind games as a means of team building. The result of Anna Best's residency was not immediately apparent to convey to those outside the experience and the act of researching and organising a group trip left little time for reflection. There was an element of surprise for the staff (not knowing where the bus was taking them) which meant that staff were inadvertently part of a live performance, but the experiences they were to endure could have potentially had a real impact in the work place. In the event, the weekend was given over to practical questions and internal office politics. The after effects of Anna's residency remain relevant to the organisation but not necessarily to a wider group of people.
Best's residency explored the effects of a performative collaboration and the manipulation and awakening of a group of participants, within a relationship based on trust (but not necessarily collaboration) with the artist. "Team Build" set out to question what the role of the artist is in staging and pulling off such an event. Where does the artistic integrity lie in such a project, and how do we trace the effects of the artist's intervention?
The conflicting approaches and concerns that came up at "Team Build" led on to thoughts about the coexisting motivations of rebellion and responsibility, performance and function and respect and risk in socially engaged projects. The second part of this article traces these elements back through tendencies in art practice of the 1960s and 70s, namely the direct actions of Joseph Beuys and informal happenings of Allan Kaprow.
Joseph Beuys, while working towards direct change through collective movements, maintained the illusion of the myth of the artist. His protests and actions were led by a utopian manifesto to change the understanding of art by placing it at the centre of the everyday. In December 1971 the action "Overcome Party Dictatorship Now" was organised by Beuys as a demonstration in Grafenberger Forest against the proposed extension of the Rochus Club Tennis Courts which were to destroy large parts of the woodland. The protest was attended by fifty of Beuys' students. They swept the woodland paths with birch brooms and painted white crosses and rings on the trees that were due to be felled.
A project that shares some of the utopian ideals of Beuys' collective actions is the "Biogas" project (1997) by Superflex, a collective based in Denmark. "Biogas" was launched in a village in Tanzania, Africa as a collaboration with residents, scientists and development workers, to experiment with a self-sufficient unit that uses biological waste and solar heat instead of fire wood to generate power. The resulting prototype is a bright orange balloon that is installed in the family's backyard, acting both as a functional source of energy and a public sculpture. The project is a serious and well planned collaborative gesture towards change in a specific context, but one has to ask what effect it has had in real terms - have many residents bought the Biogas unit and have other developing countries adopted it as an alternative method of generating energy? The measure of success for the Biogas project may lie in the mere gesture of that one prototype and the subsequent unquantifiable effects it has had in the Tanzanian village, among scientists and in the art community. Perhaps it is the transaction of responsibilities and the growing network of collaborations that "extend the life of artworks and ideas from the past towards an uncertain future." (9)
Beuys' action "Overcome Party Dictatorship Now" was a demonstration against the destruction of the woodland and at the same time a wider political statement reflecting Beuys' teachings on direct democracy through art. Artists, such as Superflex have attempted to move on from preaching utopian ideals towards focusing on a "realistic utopia" for a specific locality. This involves creating structures or platforms for dialogue and exchange in response to a situation rather than enforcing direct action in accordance with a set of universal ideals. The artist often adopts a responsive, utilitarian role at a localised level.
In the UK the integration of art into the Government's policy on social inclusion and regeneration relies heavily on utopian notions of art as an empowering tool. Beuys believed he was empowering people to approach life creatively. This therapeutic role influenced many artists through a global, unifying project of direct democracy. "Beuys framed his work as a form of homeopathic therapy: the Art Pill." (10) He was involved, integral to and embodied democratic change while at the same time led his followers towards enlightenment. The "art pill" is now dished out by New Labour in an attempt to empower and effect change through the participatory values of art.
The projects described here do not tend to swallow the "art pill" very easily and there is often another side to the "altruistic act" of socially engaged art.
Meyer Schapiro was writing about political and aesthetic rebellion through his social critique of capitalism, in America in the 1930s. Schapiro's teachings condemned the effects of capitalism and sought freedom through reclaiming subjectivity (11). He called on artists to acquire courage to act on and change society. (12) Alan Kaprow was a student of Schapiro's and took on this task to change society through his "Happenings."
Kaprow's "Fluids" (1967) involved the building of 30 walls of ice in public spaces in Pasadena and Los Angeles. They were built and watched melting by local people in each site. This was collective, participatory labour undertaking an obsolete, ephemeral act. Kaprow saw it as a "dystopian allegory of capitalist production and consumption." (13))
Kaprow's actions became more open to chance and randomness; "events occurred in different cities, on unmarked stretches of highway, simultaneously, at unspecified times, at whim [...]."(14) The relevance of chance and accident to break from the systems and make a different sphere of understanding that was not controlled by the market, can also be heard in the compositions or "chance operations" of Kaprow's mentor, John Cage.
Kaprow was interested in getting rid of his audience. As he began to depart form the spectacle his happenings became "activities" which only involved volunteer participants. The experience of the few people involved was essential and ephemeral.
Eventually, even the documentation and lasting effect of the spontaneous event became a burden. This constant departure from control, regulation and framing is also apparent in current projects in their uneasy, complex relation to state agendas.
For example, "Valley Vibes" and "Mobile Porch," are two projects that focus on specific urban environments and the use and make-up of notions of community. "Valley Vibes" is a sound machine on wheels which is used by those that hire it out to play and record their own music, poetry or special events. It is a collaboration between Jeanne van Heeswijk and Amy Plant to investigate, indirectly, the perspectives and reactions towards regeneration of residents in four different London Boroughs. (15)
The "Vibe Detector" acts an instrument and resource for people to hire out and use, and has been collecting the sounds of each event, from poetry readings to children's parties. The "Vibe Detector" primarily exists as a tool for recording and researching, rather than as an art object.
"Mobile Porch," created by artists Kathrin Bàhm and Stefan Saffer and architect Andreas Lang (www.mobileporch.net), is a prototype for creating private situations in public spaces. A large structure is placed in public spaces and used in a myriad of ways - some organised and some spontaneous. The artists explain the idea behind their "including art practice" is to find new partners and contexts, challenge new meanings for art and reconsider art's social relevance.
The initial frameworks of the "Vibe Detector" and of "Mobile Porch" are built to be reworked and changed. These structures retain enough informal autonomy to reflect the needs of their users rather than acting as top-down models of "inclusion." The autonomy exists in their physicall self-contained forms, which then can be put to many uses. It is relevant that the artistic autonomy of the project is not reliant on having a single author.
The incessant transgression of Allan Kaprow can be connected to actions and collaborations such "Valley Vibes" and "Mobile Porch." Autonomy and subversion are a significant element of Kaprow's actions and this trickles through to current practices such as these where the gesture, action and performance means there is not one direct application for change, but many contradictory questions.
The understanding and manipulation of the "rules" in current projects, however, are more connected and dependent on each other as the artists see themselves as part of the system rather than outside it. The relationships are more blurred and actions involve subtle shifts and suggestions rather than attempt to overhaul the status quo. Actions and events have transgressed from being "anti-" to "extra-" or "meta-". (16)
One could argue that both Beuys and Kaprow were involved in this "anti-" approach; working against the system to provide an alternative space or platform, to reclaim ones subjectivity. To some extent, this train of thought is reflected in current practices, but the notion of "them and us" is obliterated through some socially engaged practices which attempt change and empowerment through collaboration with the state or institution. These projects rely very much on chance and subversion in order to maintain autonomy from the directly political aspects of empowerment and change, thus maintaining elements of usefulness and uselessness throughout.
Maurice O'Connell, for example, in his "Penryn Valley Project"(ongoing), is an initiative by the artist to redevelop a part of the town of Penryn using alternative methods of regeneration. By trying to become a member of the local council, O'Connell is proposing partnerships, training and events in the valley as an alternative to big budget entertainment centres. In the UK, artists are often parachuted into areas of regeneration to work with communities, but here the artist has set up a dialogue independent of the agendas of commissioning bodies or sponsors. The gesture of the artist is to promote long term change as an undercover artist - very few people in the locality know of Maurice's true profession. Without such preconceptions, chance and subversion have the opportunity to come through the actions and events themselves rather than the expectations that the label "artist" often brings with it.
Notions of change are directly linked to ideas of empowerment. The theory of collaborating, giving, empowering and effecting change is fraught with contradictions and overlaps. The notion of the gift and of social responsibility, the significance of chance encounters and risky interventions all set up different relations between artists and participants/audiences.
Optimism for change is reflected in the writing of Marcel Mauss and George Bataille. Their notion of the gift is an alternative "to the rationalist calculation of capitalist exchange." Bataille describes his gift as the gift of subjectivity, that by giving one is exhibiting one's power; one is escaping from the "imposition of objective rational necessity," that is, the control of consumerism/capitalism.(17)
While Bataille and Mauss have based their research and understanding of the gift on anthropological studies of non-western rituals, one could interpret Kaprow's "Fluids" or the sweeping actions of Beuys as empowerment through subversive collective rebellion; the events give freedom and voice outside of the capitalist system. This optimism and the idealist notion of freedom as subjectivity is crushed by Derrida. While Bataille went so far as to say that the notion of the gift is the reclaiming of subjectivity in that it opens an area of freedom and play, Derrida says the very idea of the Gift is madness. It only gives to the extent it gives time (the gap between the gift and counter-gift): "The giver as subject initiates, the giver creates demands and determines the very nature of the exchange. It is thus for that subject an escape from rational discourse (which demands the individual as object)."
(18)) So, here we have the reality of the exchange and the power relations at play. The act of giving (commissioning or intervening) always results in an exchange.
Derrida in his critique of the gift describes this need to escape from rational discourse as futile- that by seeking to escape and lose itself, the subject draws the world to it. (19) This seems to tally with the practices of artists who are placing themselves (or being placed) in social structures (such as hospitals, local governments, schools or corporations), in order to "subvert from within." These actions of subversion which may or may not effect change, are swallowed by the structure and the whole system moves along – the relationships that are set up and the inherent exchange or reciprocity this implies means that change occurs in a myriad of undetectable ways.
Current practices such as those mentioned here focus on that exchange and reciprocity rather than the privileged act of giving. Unlike Beuys' collective actions and protests, Superflex, O'Connell, Best and the "Valley Vibe" and "Mobile Porch" projects are proposing systems and prototypes to be critiqued and manipulated. The aim is for long term change, but change that is decided on the unpredictable nature of the exchange.
One is left wondering if Beuys' really managed to prevent the Tennis Courts from being built or if O'Connell will succeed in his plans to redevelop Penryn. Traces of change spread into a network of responsibilities. By taking on the role of change-maker, the artist is setting up situations or happenings for potential failure. In doing so they reveal the complex nature of the exchange and the knock on effects of empowering.
1. DCMS Green Paper, "Culture and Creativity: The Next Ten Years," (30 March 2001)
2. Taken from Tessa Jowell on Social Corporate Responsibility. See the weblinks from www.aandb.org.uk
3. For example, the New Art Gallery Walsall, in the West Midlands opened in 2000, Baltic Centre for
Contemporary Art, Gateshead, north England is due to open July 2002 and the Turner Centre, Margate is due to open in 2004. All had extensive pre-opening public art/education programmes.
4. The Artists Placement Group (APG 1966-1989, renamed Organisation and Imagination or O+I in 1989)
was initiated by Barbara Steveni and John Latham.
5. Wallinger, Mark and Mary Warnock, eds. "Art for all? Their Policies and our Culture," (Peer Trust 2000). Art for all? questioned the principles of State support for the arts, it was compiled of a selection contributions from a nation-wide call for submissions.
6. DCMS Green Paper, "Culture and Creativity: The Next Ten Years," (30 March 2001).
7. Team Build was co-ordinated by Anna Best and B+B and held at the Baltic offices in Gateshead, in the north of England on October 13+14th 2001. It was supported by Baltic, [a-n] and Northern Arts.
8. The Year of The Artist was the culmination of the Arts Councilís Arts 2000 series to promote 1000 artists in 1000 places in 2000/2001. See http://
www.arts.org.uk/directory/art_info/yota/ for more information.
9. Dan Cameron, Afterall (Issue 4, 2001)
10. Ann Temkin, in "Culture in Action," (Washington: Bay Press, 1995), p.30.
11. Buchloch, Benjamin H.D. and Judith F.Rodenbeck, "Experiments in the Everyday Allan Kaprow and Robert Watts Events, Objects, Documents" (Columbia University 1999) Schapiro termed the effect of capitalism as the "subjective apathy and structural separation of people form power." p.41
12. IBID, p. 29
13. IBID, p. 41
14. IBID, p. 56
15. Amy Plant initiated "Valley Vibes" in 1998. Jeanne van Heeswijk invented the "Vibe Detector" and the project is in association with Chora.
16. Taken from a transcript of a conversation between Mary Jane Jacob and Michael Brenson (February
22 2002).
17. Kosalka, David, "George Bataille and the Notion of Gift" (December 1999)
18. IBID
19. IBID
© B+B (2002). This article was originally published on groupsandspaces.net.


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