Diary #1

Sat Feb 7 17:29:09 2004

This email went out to those people who B+B feel should be invited to contribute to the Interrupt debates.

The first of five Interrupt events in Birmingham was a feast for the socially engaged. One of the main concerns of this two-day think tank was who was going hungry? Who were the absentees not invited to dine and discuss the fate, function and failures of socially engaged practices? Maybe some of us were perhaps wishing we had been part of those missing links. We could have been filled in later via the Interrupt website that aims to filter, expand and seep into the minds of those not present. The joy of being an absentee meant you avoided the rigmarole of getting to Birmingham on Virgin or Silverlink. You managed to forgo hearing the torments, statements and beliefs of many people present (I wonder how useful this was seeing as we all acknowledged the wealth of practices and strategies being used and respect those different approaches. As David Harding pointed out towards the end of the event, we should attempt to move beyond the discussion of models and focus on the issues being thrown up by them). But you did miss the in between bits, finding out about people's concerns over these types of events - exactly how useful are they in terms of moving the debate forward and outwards? Who are they useful for? You also missed the best spread ever.

The focus for the two days was 'artist as educator'. Emily Pringle introduced two main questions to get the ball rolling: 1.What is the nature of engagement? 2.What is the value of engagement? Emily described the artist as a participant in making meanings and called for a unique status for socially engaged work. The term socially engaged was contested throughout the two days. It was agreed that the term needed dissecting in order to recognise, explore and support the differences.


Barbara Steveni gave a run down of APG (Artists Placement Group) whose motto is 'context is half the work'. For those artists associated (whether they like it or not) with the term socially engaged art, APG is a legacy not to be ignored. Barbara began by questioning the use-value of Interrupt: where will the documents go, who owns them and how will they be used? These questions are particularly pertinent to APG (and O+I), this being the first reciprocal dialogue they have had with the Arts Council for some 30 years. Questions of user-ship and ownership over documentation/action/event were asked of APG as well. The APG left-overs and the only evidence of their activities remained in the homes of John Latham and Barbara until recently. It is currently in the process of being moved to the Tate Archives. Key points to Barbara's talk: The Destruction in Art Symposium Barbara (using the words of John Latham) called for a new counting system using units of attention. Barbara also touched on the differences between 'authorised residencies' (ie Arts Council led/ Business led) and APG residencies. The significance was the invitation from the host organisation to the artist. APG was not just about giving jobs to artists, but about a mutual respect and understanding. The artists working through APG received payment from the host organisation at the same rate as an average wage in the organisation. Barbara stressed APG's role was to work towards a shift in thinking and repositioning of art in society. It was and still is vital, in APG/O+I's eyes, 'not to get sucked into the system'. The residencies led to proposals being made by the artists. During a placement at Esso for example, the employment officer of Esso became a member of the board of APG.


Roz Hall gave a presentation about projects she has worked on in Birmingham with young people and her intertwined research and method of informed evaluation. Mapping learning and the processes of the project enable the project to propel forward. She stressed the importance of being informed by the context rather than focusing on the evaluation of the context.


Maria Balshaw gave a presentation about Creative Partnerships (CP) as their representative in the Birmingham area. Organisational change is at the heart of the CP agenda, apparently. Maria's talk spawned an onslaught of questions and observations about how CP is reinstalling top-down models of practice (demonstrated by Maria's language: 'enabling people to have a voice...'). This also led to other issues: how there is little support for organic processes and initiatives and how the Arts Council is only interested in new initiatives and imposing new models, and how we need to talk about failure and problems about our practices because of the back-patting tendency of these safe forums. It was also noted that we should recognise the significance of risk. The moral and ethical systems at play within CP were also brought into question.


On the second day there was a panel of artists: Francois Dupré, Anya Gallaccio and Jane Trowell (representing Platform). Francois spoke of how her work is often marginalised as education but how she finds these given systems interesting and challenging to work in. Her project 'Tell me where you live' (with young people in St. Petersburgh and Birmingham) she felt, avoided being marginalised as education because it was framed by a concept and way of working (the Emplacements project http://www.artpiter.spb.ru/projects/emplacements/index_e.shtml). Anya described a project she is working on with a school in Birmingham (she has a solo show at the Ikon at the moment), which involves the growing, cooking and eating of vegetables by the children (inspired by an 'edible school yard' project in San Francisco). Jane explained Platforms agenda: to explore the creative processes of democratic engagement and to advance questions of justice because 'things aren't as they should be'. Platform's key questions were: Who are we? - it is crucial we are clear about our politics Why are we doing it? Who is stetting the agenda? They are interested in getting collectivism and the environment into the curriculum. Platform were born out of activism rather than community art. It is crucial to investigate the structures you are working within. 'Pedagogy of indignation' Platform want to take the blame and are completely responsible for their actions (this is a contrast to Rupert Clamp's artistic statement made towards the end of the day - 'I'm not accountable to anyone') Jane also stressed how we should move beyond a 'them and us' argument.


Deborah Kermode was unfortunately unable to give her presentation but this freed up well needed time for discussion - the chairs were moved from their linear status into more of a semi-circle. Issues that were brought up: We should recognise the multi-agendas we are dealing with and begin to map these complex relationships. Unless we involve the people we are working with and attempting to engage and collaborate with in these complex debates, the debate will keep going around in circles We need to invest in the cultural capital we are producing - value and energy into publishing texts etc - getting information and debates out there. Importance of cultural institutions backing this work in order to shift boundaries around exhibition-making and education etc. Galleries are significant in keeping our national heritage - our practices should be part of that It is assumed that the ducking and diving ability of an artist is better that the dilettantism of CP - this is a problematic assumption to make We can have too much evaluation Policy makers should be part of the discussion from now on It was understood that this Interrupt event was a discussion about 'artist as educator' not 'artist in education' - by some it was thought that the debate had been hijacked by formal education rhetoric.


The air was full of the terms change ('commitment to change', 'organisational change'), risk taking and ducking and diving. What do these terms mean and why do they so easily roll off our tongues? We can research, document, educate, challenge, engage, collaborate and interrupt, all to great effect. These incidental, isolated situations and long term commitments are all valued differently, within their own context.

How and why are we changing, educating and risk-taking and on whose terms? There are different levels of seriousness when it comes to artists being able to effect change - with it comes the subversion and questioning of responsibilities and the life changing abilities of artists.

It would be useful to try and see the bigger picture in its entirety. We could try and take a big step back from our intricate practices so we can see the wide-spread networks involved in and effective in 'change', 'education' and 'risk'. There could be further discussion on where these incidents of effecting change lead to and how we can find opportunities for risk taking in situations where rigid structures and high expectations are in place. A risky manoeuvre can have a knock on effect. Whose responsibility is it to develop those effects, make the most out of them or pick up the pieces? Further opportunities to develop 'questionable spaces' are perhaps needed to allow for individual voices and collective forums for 'exchange' across sectors, languages and agendas. These discussions of change-making and risk-taking should move beyond the art world context - a cosy, well catered for place where I keep on feeling a sense of déja vu.

Sophie Hope 20.05.03


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