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Ania Bas and Ruthie Ford
Artists and co-mentors Ania Bas and Ruthie Ford explore socially engaged issues, language and practice. Here they talk to Andrew Bryant about the importance of process, their collaborative blog and the artists relationship to critical reading, writing and debate.
Andrew Bryant: Your blog explores “socially engaged issues, language and practice”. What is socially engaged practice?
Ruthie Ford: ‘What is socially engaged practice?’ is a question that I too am keen to examine and the Socially Engaged Adventures project and blog are a way of doing this. My background is craft based, I studied Decorative Arts, and I came to this practice via community arts through a desire to do something useful with my skills and not to ‘put more objects into the world to be sold’. My place on the Yorkshire Artspace Starter Studio Program for Engaged Practice is giving me time to explore what engaged practice can be and my place within it. There are many lengthy responses to this question but for me at this point in time ‘Socially engaged practice’ is practice which involves collaborating with, working with or working on themes that relate to people and the world we live in.
Ania Bas: 'Socially engaged practice' is one of the terms being used in lots of various contexts: regeneration, community, engagement, change, working with people, deprived areas, relational aesthetics, participation, creativity - to mention just a few. The blog is for me a way to try to define the boundaries of this ‘phrase-bag’ and I keep posting on it links to books, websites, texts, exhibitions, symposiums that explore this term, its subjects and the language created and used around it. Some artists I know would never want to be associated with the 'socially engaged practice' label even though they work with people, communities, and within regeneration settings. I must say I don't favour this phrase either, but I am trying to explore it’s meaning.
AB: What questions do you ask yourselves when thinking about how your work ‘looks’, how it is distributed and how it is accessed by the ‘viewer’? Who is your work for and how does it aim to function?
Ruthie Ford: As a predominantly visual artist how my work looks is an important consideration. I see my practice as having two strands: a making strand (despite not wanting to make work to sell being a maker is very important to my practice). I make crochet and embroidered work for events, exhibitions, festivals and interventions. The aim of this work is to engage people with their surroundings, with the topic at hand, to get people talking and catch them off guard. The second strand is the workshop strand which involves working with people to share and facilitate craft skills. The aim of this is sometimes purely to engage people with new skills but more often to use the workshop setting and to make work and facilitate conversation that discusses and engages with different topics and each other. Where possible I create opportunities to use both strands together; making work that provides a starting point for making with others. Making mini installations and interventions with others which connect to the work I have made.
A good example of this is my recent commission for Red Nile Projects which was part of a series of commissions to re-engage the people of Stoke-on-Trent with the now underused Garden Festival Park of 1986. For this I created new giant crocheted blooms inspired by the parks Woman’s Weekly sponsored Cottage Garden from 1986. The flowers were used to stage a one day intervention in the park to draw in passersby and talk about the park and the project. Alongside this I ran workshops where participants could get involved by making mini flower interventions to add to a woolly flower garden alongside the giant blooms. Documentation of this project can be found here: http://ruthiefordrednile.blogspot.co.uk/
Ania Bas: The majority of my work is, to a degree, performative so it is difficult to ‘show’. The actual process of the work itself is incredibly important to me and my practice but this is not something that lends itself easily to being touched or viewed. Previously I relied on documentation and used videos and pictures but this was only telling part of the story. Pretty pictures can’t capture the process, the sweat, the argument, the worry, the joy. What I enjoy most about my work is meeting people and learning who they are, what they think, what their strategies to survive are, to find the meaning in their daily routines. The people who I engage with during the process are the ones who make the work with me but then the documentation is usually viewed by people who are disengaged from this first hand experience. It made me realise I was making documentation to satisfy my need to show what I was doing to other people in the art world. Now I tend to develop more tangible ways of sharing my work that may appeal to a wider audience and forcing the process to fit into a pdf, a publication or a blog is a constant struggle. I haven’t arrived at any solution just yet and I don’t think I ever will.
Here is an example of the project that was predominently performative but currently exists only on-line. I worked at Ridley Road Market in east London. I kept a blog as my research journal, then I created 1-2-1 tours of the market that around 30 people attended and finally I decided to create a guided walk using an on-line platform. I like the fact that the on line work exists alongside other guides and walks uploaded on the Everytrail site:
What emerged from the A-Z project was my fascination with Everytrail and its community. It is not an arty world, it is a world of people who love travelling. One might call the users of this site ‘tourists’. I am currently developing a new piece of work that takes the possibilities of this site as a starting point. This new work looks at a different part of London and will be launched in September this year.
AB: Your blog often references symposia, conferences and other gatherings of practitioners in the field. How important is it for you to stay in touch with current debates and trends and how does the ‘discourse’ find its way into your own work?
Ruthie Ford: Ania is really the one to ask about this. Prior to working with her I felt quite out of my depth tackling critical arts writing and debate as most of my earlier reading and knowledge base focused on craft. One element of the Socially Engaged Adventures project is to discuss set texts each time we meet and through this Ania has made me realise that I can gain a great deal from reading texts, attending symposiums and so on. For me, at this stage, the benefit of this is to open my mind to and learn from other practices and projects taking place, to further understand what socially engaged practice can be and how my work fits into it and to deal with questions and issues I have about my own practice.
Ania Bas: Well, yes I am the one to blame for all these references. I started doing it partly because there doesn't seem to be any websites listing forthcoming events, symposiums or shows that touch on the issues we are interested in. So it is probably there as much for my benefit as for the blog readers.
There is increasingly more and more interest and debate around this type of practice although it is still not a prime concern for the main institutions, galleries, and magazines within the art world. Socially engaged practice is still largely seen as a ‘tool’ for audience development, for strengthening and developing links with the locality, for ‘empowerment’. I am interested in following the debates and papers that look into value and place of this type of practice within society. I am sure all this thinking and these texts find their way into my work. But most importantly being aware of these debates helps me make choices about my practice.
AB: I think I remember reading in your blog that either one or both of you had started out as painters. Is that right or am I making that up? In any case, could you tell us a bit about the trajectories that have led to your current practice?
Ruthie Ford: As I said earlier my background is craft based, I studied Decorative Arts specialising in textiles. I found my post-university experience of graduate shows and exhibitions left me a bit cold and I realised that making work to sell wasn’t for me. Prior to and during university I had worked in cafe and bar management and I realised that I really thrived when working with others. When I was first starting out my practice in Sheffield I found opportunities to work with others by sharing my craft skills through freelance work with community arts organisations. This work gave me an incredible experience in working with people from a variety of backgrounds in a range of settings sharing a multitude of craft skills. After a couple of years I found that I wanted more control of the projects I undertook; I wanted to focus back on the hand crafted textiles skills I started out with; knitting, crochet and embroidery. I wanted to use my practice to explore the narrative in these crafts, the connections they form between people, the interactions that happen in craft groups. I found that I wanted to work on longer term projects that gave people a voice and invoked thought and discussion on a variety of topics and engagement with locality and community. I applied for the Yorkshire Artspace Starter Studio for Engaged Practice in order to focus on how my practice could develop in this direction. The two year program has been a great opportunity to experiment, research and reflect on engaged practice and my place within it.
Ania Bas: My MA is not in fine art but in culture studies. I think this is where my interest in people comes from. As a student I was researching the overlapping grounds of community art, social work and fine art. A very important reference point for me at the time was the work carried out by Jubilee Arts in West Bromwich. Later I was very much inspired by the work of Artist Placement Group and started making work in business environments– I did a 6 month long residency with Vestas Blades, a company producing blades for wind turbines. I also worked for a long period of time with a Basque company, Labein Tecnalia in Bilbao, Spain. Work places are fascinating, this is where the majority of people spend large parts of their lives and what defines them as human beings. The workplaces create their own communities. I continue working in business contexts and at the same time I dream about a residency in the Houses of Parliament.
AB: Finally, what is up ahead for you both? Do you have any specific projects on the horizon?
Ruthie Ford: My next big project will be the birth of my first child at the end of May! I will be taking 6 months off to be a mum and I am looking forward to spending some of that time reflecting on my practice; where it has taken me in the last four years and where I want it to lead me in the future.
I was recently very lucky to secure Arts Council Funding for a project in the Parson Cross area of Sheffield. I have just started the first stage of the project and it will continue after I return to work. This project is an embroidery project with pregnant women and new mums. The project will explore and research both the benefits of engaging with a group through a shared common experience and the benefits of adding a creative element to the traditional mother and baby group.
It also gives me the chance to see how being a mum and a practicing artist can work together; how I can use my situation to inspire my work and how I can continue to practice with a child.
Ania Bas: I am currently in residence in Parson Cross in Sheffield where Ruthie has her studio. This is a year long residency with Yorkshire Artspace. So far I have been walking a lot through the estate with a blue chair in my arms and talking to people. And I have a blog where you can read more about the work that I am developing.
I am also closely involved in Whitechapel Gallery’s pilot co-mentoring programme for artist and art teachers that I co-lead. Co-mentoring is a great way of working together and there is lots of guidance available to help establish co-mentoring relationships that I would recommend exploring before embarking on a co-mentoring adventure. For those interested in the outcome of the pilot there will be a free public event in early July at Whitechapel Gallery in London.
If you want to find out more about Ford and Bas you might be interested in their blog Socially Engaged Adventures
Andrew Bryant is an artist and freelance editor living in London
First published: a-n.co.uk May 2012
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