There are two things that I’m going to continue to write about and revisit over and over again in this blog, they are: 1) Socially Engaged Art/ Participatory Practice and 2) Practice as Research. This entry will be no different.
As an artist, like many of my peers, I am grappling with a set of challenges and ideas that feel as if they are encroaching not only on my autonomy as an artist but on the way I and others understand art and its role in society. Recognising that:
“Art does not stand apart from history by any means, least of all its own; but intrinsic to its identity is the principle of freedom with regard to that history. Any prediction in advance of what it will (or should) do is alien to it, and equally, any attempt to fully account for it, whether through the apparatus of criticism or that of the market is doomed to be incomplete. It is the part of our culture where we allow ourselves to think otherwise.” 1
I fear that perhaps the most significant of these attempts to ‘account for art’ is its commercialisation and commodification, its reduction to a form of mere entertainment. This disturbing shift seems to be rendering even the most shocking, revolutionary or obscene artworks as impotent, harmless or easily contained. As artists we often have grandiose ideas about how our work can challenge hegemony and power or disrupt social, political, economic and even ecological systems. However, at the same time we continue to use the measures of success set by the neo-liberal capitalist regime in which we live: money, fame, prestige and acceptance into mainstream galleries and museums who themselves are bound by conservative funding structures, aggressive business models and upper class patrons. The strange bedfellows, artists and capitalists, have effectively reduced art to a spectacle.
As a way to better understand and explore this challenge of how art can break free from the negative impacts of the market I have gone back several steps in order to explore the question: What roles does art plays in society? Not in an attempt to define or assign art with a set role as I don’t agree that art has some kind of essentialist form or function, rather this focus on the many roles art play in society is an attempt to to understand and articulate what role I would like my artwork to play.
Art is many things to many people, but the kind of art that I’m most interested in making is known as Participatory Practice or Socially Engaged Art (Bishop/Kester). As I understand it socially engaged art (henceforth reffered to as SEA) is the kind of art that plays in the gaps and silences between binaries, destabilising dichotomies and continuing a tradition of pushing the boundaries of what art is as well as what it art does. Arguably SEA has been around in one form or another since very early in the 20th Century and has been happening right around the globe. It is an incredibly diverse practice in its methods, approaches and intent. Generally speaking SEA concerns itself with the tensions between/and the challenges of:
– authorship, audience and participation
– consumerism and the commercialisation of art
– the production of useful art vrs. The fight against its reduction to a utilitarian tool
– Aesthetics and new materialism; the ephemeral and the call for documentation
– the collective/collaborative and the individual
– democracy and dissensus; the gallery and art in public spaces
– addressing current world issues and the historical trajectory of the Avant Guard
– the space between art and life
– the “third term” , the ‘so what?’ 2
So, in other words, seemingly everything. However the common thread and that is people and their relationships, whether they are relationships between people or between people and ideals, or people and the material world.
Alongside my interest in SEA I am also keenly interested in the role of art as a reseach methodology, or what is otherwise known as Practice as Research (which is why I have taken on a practice-led PhD). Practice as Research (henceforth PaR) is the proposition that artistic practice can be viewed as the “production of knowledge or philosophy in action… artistic research demonstrates that knowledge is derived from doing and from the senses.” 3 Or in other words that there is an inherent logic to art (and in my case craft), a methodology that can be applied in the world in order to make significant contributions to knowledge which are generative, unique and extend the frontiers of research. As described by Robin Nelson in his book:
“PaR describes what practitioner-researchers do, [it] captures the nuances and subtleties of their research processes and accurately reflects the process to research funding bodies. Above all it asserts the primacy of practice and insists that because creative practice is both on-going and persistent; practitioner-researchers do not merely ‘think’ their way through or out of a problem, but rather they ‘practice’ to a resolution.” 4
This process of practicing towards a resolution can also be described as an iterative inductive method of research.
This paragraph really resonates with me and helps me to articulate why for me PaR was the logical choice; this notion of the ‘practitioner-researcher’ very accurately describes how I think and feel about my practice. For me making art is a process of being and interacting with the world around me, it is how I process information as well as my inner thoughts. It is a two-way dialogue between my inner thoughts, feelings and ideas and the materiality and autonomy of the material world. An interaction that also extends to the theoretical, philosophical and political forces operating in the world around me. Furthermore, I really resonate with the idea that in the case of a PaR methodology ‘knowledge’ follows after, is secondary to, the practice – or rather emerges out of that practice.
PaR has evolved out of a higher education context, emerging from within the artistic academic community – particularly at a PhD level – and is therefor shaped and bound by the limits of these institution. It is an approach that tries to extend the limits of what can be understood as ‘research’ and as ‘knowledge’ and aims to have artistic research and artistic knowledge valued equally to other disciplines and methodologies PaR “…is an acceptance that knowledge is not fixed and absolute.”5 and really pushes what kinds of ‘knowledges’ are accepted by the institution. While PaR recognises that research in some form is a part of all artistic practices it ultimatly requires “the rigours of sustained academic research [which] are driven by a desire to address a problem, find things out, establish new insights” .6
Whilst PaR is in part an attempt to ensure financial viability and sustainability as well as a recognition for the contribution that art brings to these institutions and to society, it is also a direct challenge to the very fundamentals of what PhD is and what it requires, such as the basic assumption that a PhD should begin with a well defined ‘research question’ and finish with data being used to point to some sort of resolution or answer. Instead PaR typically focusses on a research inquiry which “affords substantial insights rather than coming to such definite conclusions as to constitute ‘answers’.” 7 Personally, I much prefer the idea of a research inquiry to a research question. I feel that the ‘problem-solution’ dichotomy is not an appropriate approach for working in social contexts; that society is infinitely complex and diverse and that any attempt to presume to identify and define a ‘problem/question’ let alone extract some kind of ‘solution’ or find an ‘answer’ – in fact I feel the act of doing so is often more harmful than useful. The adaptive challenges faced by communities do not require technical fixes, they require long term support with the experimentation, co-creation and implementation of alternate ways of doing and being. As such, I didn’t go into a Practice as Research PhD with a focus on Socially Engaged Art in order to ‘fix’ anyone, or any community. I want my work to be accessible and I would like my practice and the outcome of my work to be humble. I do not want to make grandiose claims about the impacts of my work, or the findings of my research. I am not driven by the ideas of progressivism or the agenda’s of social reformers. What I do aspire to achieve is a practice that is revealing about its subject, engaging of its audiences, sensual and seductive in its materiality and subtle in its socio-economic-political positioning. Like a good film, I hope that my practice will be able to capture people’s attention, moves them emotionally and entices them to reflect about their ‘being in the world’ – giving them an invitation to reconsider or reimagine their current realities.
1 Adamson, G. Thinking Through Craft, 2007, p9
2 Ranciere, J. – Emancipated Spectator introduces the “third term” solution, which is echoed in substance in Aesthetics and its Discontents,
3 Barrett, E and Bolt, B. Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Inquiry, 2010, p1
4 Nelson, R. (ed) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, 2013, p8
5 Nelson, R. (ed) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, 2013, p39
6 Nelson, R. (ed) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, 2013, p3
7 Nelson, R. (ed) Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances, 2013, p30