Anna, Emily, Johnny & Susan, Wakefield, 13 June 2012

Monday, 24 September 2012

Art which is Useful to Society:

Socially engaged practices have been around a long time, and a few years back when arts funding was relatively easy to come by, perhaps due to government regeneration schemes, as well as community development funds charged with engaging the public, it seemed there was a glut of artists working in this way. It could be argued that much of the work done was unsustainable, did nothing for community development, and in many cases was quite bad art.
Then came the Tories. Then came the Cuts.
Times have changed.
There is a fairly new swathe of 'socially-engaged' projects, which aim to support development in communities, working with local people to change the world around them, even if in a small way. Almost every city seems to have an arts group working around ideas of sustainability, and mixing ideas of food sustainability with art. Growing spaces on interim sites are springing up all over - indeed, we have been developing an outdoor Yard space for a few years now at AirSpace Gallery. Hoping to contribute to the local ecology, feeding the birds, but recently working with one of our studio artists to explore using small yard spaces as potential sites for urban food growing. We applied for local community funding, as our idea was to develop our outdoor space as an outdoor classroom, to demonstrate how even a relatively small yard can yield a good crop of food. In the space we want to demonstrate vertical growing techniques, propagation and maintenance, also hoping that the space will become a resource and escape space for people working in the area. We were unsuccessful in the funding bid, the feedback during the interview and afterwards was that they felt we just wanted someone else to pay for our garden, and that the project would not be beneficial to the community or represent value for money.  The question I wanted to raise, but didn't was that I am a member of the community, as are many of the other artists involved in the project - don't we count? But actually, our motives were not purely selfish, as suggested, we really did want to demonstrate something to people here.

For the SAJE project I wish to explore exactly what it means to be a socially-engaged artist. After the conversation with Alistair Hudson from Grizedale, where he described what they do as 'art which aims to be useful to society' I have been thinking a lot about the issues that this notion raises.  What does it mean for other art, that does not aim to be useful to society? Is that art therefore flighty, self-indulgent, unuseful? A lot of the time it seems that this art work which is described as useful, often does not look like art - the engaged public or community member has no idea that a trojan horse has rumbled in. If it is not recognisable to the participant as art, is that important? Is it still art? Where does aesthetic come into the conversation? Why are artists doing this work and not councils and governments? Can artists really be trusted? Aren't we all just out for what we can get, or are we truly socially engaged? What are our motives?

Maybe this breed of artist doesn't want to condone a world obsessed with the commodification of everything - including culture. Artists are setting up alternative economies; creative industries as an alternative to throw-away, buy now pay later cultures. Artists are calling for citizen activism, creating a difference in the places they live and work. Artists want to work on longer term, meaningful projects, they don't want to be used as social sticking plaster or box-ticking consultants anymore. These artists are not interested in creating heavy lumps of metal to litter the streets in the name of public art. Artists can draw attention to resources that have been overlooked, and find creative uses for them. Artists can demonstrate alternative ways of being and living. Artists can create interruptions which suggest new routes. Artists are doing all this already. The big society is another big gimmick, to avoid responsibility, not to nurture it.
A lot can be learnt from these projects, but how are they being documented, discussed and advocated for?

The projects I want to look at for SAJE look to be doing a good job of engaging the public in cultural activity - whether that be growing, making or selling. I would like to explore what the results looks like. How the participants feel about it. What the organisers/artists aim to achieve through the activity. And still considering the exit strategy - how do you hand this back, or ensure it continues?
In many ways a question about what the art looks like may be irrelevant. If we are creating situations where the community become cultural producers, do we still need to keep an eye on aesthetic quality, or is that no longer an issue? A painting might be beautiful - and might make people feel better about life, and perhaps that is where the crossover is? Locating 'the art' in the projects that I intend to look at might be a dead end.
While carrying out the research, I also want to explore the importance of dialogues within work of this nature, one of the soft outcomes of projects like this is that they almost always involve interaction between artist and community member or community member and community member - something which was at risk of dying out in public life. I intend to test walking as a consultation tool. I will ask interviewees to take me on a one hour walk around an area where the project has taken place, or somewhere else if the area is not available. Then I will ask questions while we are walking. I will also give the participant a camera and ask them to photograph on the way.
I am going to Glasgow in October: I am still organising my visit;
I aim to go on a walk with 2 participants from The Clipperton Project, plus enter into an email conversation with Alex Kearney (director). I am meeting up with Celina Jeffrey while there too and going to her workshop looking at 'Searching' as a social and political strategy.
I aim to go on a walk with an organiser from one of NVA's Sow And Grow Everywhere project, (The Concrete Garden?) as well as a member of the community who is using one of the growing spaces.
I would also love to return to Grizedale, and go on a walk around Coniston with one of the Grizedale Arts workers, as well as one or two of the participants in one of their projects, but I don't know that I will have time to do that as well.

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