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By: Manjinder Sidhu
Everyone’s at It (collaboration/participation/socially-engaged practice) so my Summer plan is engaging, exploring, experiencing and expressing - in London. I know it’s something to do with power relationships (to simplify, just for now) so I’ll go along to shows/events thinking about: access, hierarchy, equality and exchange. Starting an MA in Gallery Education at Institute of Education in October, I’ll log my journey as I encounter these terms in live contexts.
# 27 [11 September 2012]
'Dialogic art practice'
Came across this term in 'Conversation Pieces' (Grant H. Kester, 2004) and very excited about how it's re-framing my world and thinking about what art is, and can be. It's a brilliantly heavy read - well-researched, without being dry or coldly academic.
My early work at art school was quietly political. Relational aesthetics sounded great - but became an unachievable ideal to sit around reading/talking about - rather than relating meaningfully to the 'outside' world. So two years later, and with some real experience of the 'outside' I'm ready to reflect and re-engage with theory to perhaps make sense of my own experience and re-look at my values as an artist in the world as it is now. I'm keen to look at the work I do with people - as an adult Learning Support Assistant at City Lit, and Workshop Leader at Westminster Mind - and questioning how this sits with my own sense of an art practice. And questioning what defining myself as an artist means? Do I need this label or is it sometimes a barrier? Thinking around the term 'dialogic art practice' is helping me to explore this.
Dialogic practices in art are unashamedly complex and connect to the socio-political world beyond the gallery walls, in contrast to the immediate/shock short-term approach of the avant-garde. Projects unfold through a process of performative interaction or intervention. Through this cumulative process of dialogue and exchange, stereotypes are challenged to generate new perceptions. The emphasis is on interaction rather than a product/object, so meaningful conversation/listening over a significant period of time is essential; connecting historically/socially and understanding our sense of self and others. In this role, Kester describes the artist as being in a state of 'vulnerable receptivity' (really love this description) and talks about intimacy of all participants involved. This takes my four words (access, hierarchy, equality and exchange) to a completely new universe of understanding!
Kicking this phrase around for a while, distinguishing what is and what isn't a dialogic practice might help. Artists mentioned on this blog who have a dialogic approach include Stephen Willats, Suzanne Lacy and those showing at Peckham Space (Sonia Boyce, Barbe Asante, Gayle Chong Kwan). Whereas Rachel Whiteread's 'House' (1993) approach was classically avant-garde; based on shock, disruption and ambiguity. The pouring technique, used to create the caste of the interior space of this Edwardian terrace house, had been used in earlier works to explore the significance of domestic and interior space. So she was taking a studio-based technique out into the world. It was not location-specific (Whiteread had considered houses in North and East London and Islington before the Bow site became available) and the work didn't involve community consultation as part of the process.
Essentially, the starting point for a dialogic artwork is dialogue, as opposed to a pre-planned idea hatched out in the quiet of the studio. The particular idea, object, image or experience then emerges from this situated dialogue [Continued... in next post]
# 26 [11 September 2012]
[...continuation - see previous post] But I think showing this work in a gallery space can be problematic: articulating the communicative aspects (the most important bit for the artist) to an audience is not straightforward, and requires time and commitment from the viewer. At a public talk at The London Open at Whitechapel, I asked Patricia Vickers (Editor, Art Monthly), one of the selectors, why there was no 'dialogical' work in a show that claimed to be about contemporary art practice. She said looking at 1800 submissions meant that this sort of work wasn't likely to be selected. So how do public galleries show dialogic work?
I think my experience at the Suzanne Lacy show at Tate Tanks was successful in attempting to get across this sense of dialogue. The circular room felt womb-like and the central comfy seating encouraged close proximity, a sense of relaxation, intimacy and listening. I did feel primed though: the ever-busy feedback board at the entrance suggested an openness to evolving dialogue, and the Tino Segal piece in The Turbine Hall had an overpowering sense of flow and connectivity: I felt happy to surrender to the wave and somehow trusted the space would hold me. Although I was a bit peeved when the assistant asked me to stop, while I was making graphite rubbings on newsprint (wonderful enigmatic raised font, text and numbers, chunky iron bolts), saying the noise (I didn't realise it was noisy) might disturb others. On reflection, I think this was a fair comment - and was in-tune with the sense of creating a shared space, respectful of others. By contrast, the show at SLG upstairs in May, Febrik (Play, I Follow You) came across as a show about accountability (aimed at funders etc?), a show and tell 'presentation' of 'what we did' that might suit a conference; rather than an art gallery.
Whatsmore, because dialogic projects are not reducible to the visual they can be difficult to critique, and reviewers often fail to recognise the value of the communicative aspects of the work. Or can oversimplify the stated intentions and then simply calculate the efficiency, neglecting the art bit.
Kester goes on to present a new discursive framework - to share insights, observations and reactions. So lots to think about.
I think my 'summer of love' is most definitely over now. Thankyou for taking the time to read this.
# 25 [28 August 2012]
Critical Friends: Public 'survey' at Peckham Space (PS) and square (Sunday 26 August)
Aim: to find out what people really think about PS and art; what they think the role of an art space in Peckham should be; publicise PS current/future programme.
How: using a framework of four pre-agreed questions, we paired-up and strategically positioned ourselves to catch all passers-by on the square - recording with an I-phone, Dictaphone, notes on paper, post-its. The same four questions were also presented on A3 sheets on the inside and outside wall of PS - along with a good supply of post-its and pens for people to add their responses.
What happened: it was so interesting to hear people's views! So many people had strong opinions about what they wanted in their community: family events, a space for teenagers to hang out, activities to connect people in the community, art for people of all ages and abilities etc. So many people had never been inside the building, despite walking past it regularly: a valuable piece of information for PS to work with. Inviting people to go inside and maybe contribute to the Peace Blanket, or have a cup of tea, became a meaningful way to end the chats. And I'd like to think that all the people we spoke to now have a (positive) relationship with the space; it's now a reality in their personal experience and something that has currency for future encounters or when they next hear something about PS. All the encounters were positive! Everyone was friendly - even people who were busy and couldn't stop. Maybe it's something to do with the generous gift of listening. Hopefully we'll be able to use this information meaningfully, and act in response to comments, and create more opportunities for dialogue.
I was curious to see how this event compared with similar public interviews I helped with at InIVA in East London, as part of the Social Archive (see blog entry # 3 [9 July 2012]) a three-year project. I held this romantic view (now proved to be wrong - thankfully) that people in East London had more to say and were more informed. Maybe the negative media coverage about Peckham is hard to shift, unless made conscious and openly addressed and counterbalanced by real-time positive experiences.
It was surprisingly easy to do - and so enjoyable to connect. I see this as one of the benefits of working as part of a collective. I think I'd get too serious and bogged-down in planning detail and 'what if' scenarios if I was doing this alone. Also, the freedom of working with a smaller gallery, rather than a big institution, allows for spontaneity and the individual approach. Although I was very impressed by the 'feedback boards' at the entrance to Tate Tanks: they were crammed full every day with comments and an open-faced gallery assistant armed with a clipboard was chatting to passers-by (or was she censoring the comments?).
# 24 [22 August 2012]
Peckham Peace Festival 19/8/12 www.peckhamspace.com
Peckham Peace Month (8 August - 2 September)
Sunshine Ska and sewing. Riding on that post-Olympic energy, this chilled-out Sunday afternoon at Peckham Square was a blissful space to hang-out on the hottest day of the year. It felt like being at a major music festival; with music, food, mellow ambience, stalls and tactile activities to keep your hands happy. But the party was on a human-scale and I was surrounded by my local community, people I recognise and will see again. Through simple activities I was happy chatting to everybody and anybody.
Activities included 'sewing' a message onto a felt square, as a contribution to the growing Peckham Peace Blanket by Mhairi Macaulay, a student at Camberwell College of Arts. The absorbing and connecting activity of sewing collectively included all ages; men and women equally (helping each other to thread needles, inspire etc). Sitting together cocooned in the ebb and flow of chatting/silence/joyful music, my mind idled in happy memories of fuzzy felt, school sewing and my mother's ever-busy hands. The final blanket will include contributions from over 1000 people. Thinking about my three participation words (access, hierarchy and exchange), this event gets top marks!
The blanket was inspired by the Peckham Peace Wall by Garudio Studiage - a response to the summer riots of 2011. The Wall features 4000 original post-it messages that were displayed on boards covering broken windows in the area. The original project was started by four members of the Peckham Shed Theatre Company, who felt motivated to do something; to get out onto the streets of Peckham and unite the community in positive, peaceful action. Armed with felt-tip pens and post-it notes, they spent the day encouraging locals to think of positive things about Peckham by creating the 'Why we love Peckham wall.' The first board covered a window outside Poundland on Rye lane, and the Wall eventually grew to fill seven hoardings.
Reading the post-it notes is a heartwarming experience; the individual handwriting, complete with spelling errors and slang portrays the individual voices, with a collective strength and vision to make meaningful change. My favourite post-it was:
'Peckham is a love place. Don't mash it up'.
Feels like the Peckham Phoenix is rising from the ashes.
# 23 [8 August 2012]
Participation. Documents of Contemporary Art. Edited by Claire Bishop, 2006.
Viewers as producers
A book about the social dimension of participation, rather than the activation of individual viewer in interactive or installation art. Reviews the history of practices since '60s that appropriate social forms as a way to bring art closer to everyday life: samba dancing (Helio Oiticica) funk (Adrian Piper), drinking beer (Tom Maroni), discussing philosophy (Ian Wilson) or politics (Joseph Beuys), organising a garage sale (Martha Rosler). They differ from performance art, in that they strive to collapse the distinction between performer and audience, professional and amateur, production and reception. The emphasis is on collaboration and the collective dimension of social experience.
Precursor, Paris Dada-season of April 1921; a series of manifestations that sought to involve the city's public, eg mock trial of anarchist author - where public were invited to sit on jury. Soviet mass spectacles that sublated individualism into propagandistic displays of collectivity. Authored tradition that seeks to provoke participants, and a de-authored lineage that aims to embrace collective creativity. One is disruptive and interventionist and the other constructive and ameliorative.
Walter Benjamin (1934ish) maintained that a work of art should actively intervene in and provide a model for allowing viewers to be involved in the process of production: 'this apparatus is better, the more consumers it is able to turn into producers - that is, the more readers of spectators into collaborators'. Brechtian theatre abandons long complex plots in favour of 'situations' that interrupt the narrative through a disruptive element, eg song. Through montage and juxtaposition, audiences were led to break their identification with the protagonists on stage and be incited to critical distance - relies on critical thinking. Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty sought to reduce the distance between actors and spectators - physical involvement is considered an essential precursor to social change.
Today's agendas: activation, authorship, community.
Activation: desire to create an active subject, one who will be empowered by the experience of physical or symbolic participation - able to determine their own social and political reality.
Authorship: the gesture of ceding some or all authorial control is conventionally regarded as more egalitarian and democratic than the creation of a work by a single artist. Shared production is also seen to entail the aesthetic benefits of greater risk and unpredictability -a non-hierarchical social model.
Community: community and collective responsibility in crisis. Alienating and isolating effects of capitalism.
Guy Debord (Situationist International). The spectacle - a social relationship between people mediated by images - is pacifying and divisive, uniting us only through our separation from one another - the opposite of dialogue. 'Situations' were a logical development of Brechtian theatre, except the audience function disappears altogether, in a new category of 'viveur' (one who lives). Rather than awakening critical consciousness (Brechtian model), 'constructed situations' aimed to produce a new social relationships and thus new social realities.
Nicholas Bourriaud (1998) Relational aesthetics.
Jacques Ranciere (2004) Problems and transformations in critical art. Art no longer wants to respond to the excess of commodities and signs but to a lack of connections. Argues that the opposition of active and passive is riddled with presuppositions about looking and knowing, watching and acting, appearance and reality. The binary active/passive always ends up dividing a population into those with capacity on one side, and those with incapacity on the other. Ranciere argues that emancipation should presuppose equality: the assumption that everyone has the same capacity for intelligent response to a book or play or work of art. Rather than suppressing this mediating object in favour of communitarian immediacy.
Calls for spectators that are active as interpreters. - we are all equally capable of inventing our own translations - inviting all to appropriate works for ourselves and make our own meanings.
# 22 [3 August 2012]
South London Gallery. Pursuit of perfection: the politics of sport
Wellcome Collection. Superhuman: exploring human enhancement from 600BCE to 2050.
I'm not really interested in sport itself, but found both these shows fascinating - possibly influenced by the fact that I'm inhaling Olympic mania with every breath at the moment.
Visited SLG first and loved the overpowering sense impression, experiencing the relationship between the work and the space around it. The show goes beyond the gallery to the recently gutted Southwark Old Town Hall, and extends to a range of local settings as part of 'SLG Local'. The town hall is a beautiful sturdy municipal building. John Gerrard's work, 'Exercise' (Djibouti) 2012 works conceptually (a former site of power) and physically/emotionally in a former council chamber. The comfy leather seats are arranged in a series of semi-circles, each seat with its own set of voting buttons: Yes, No, Abstain (perhaps there's a mini-bar under the seat panel). A central floor-to-ceiling screen shows red and blue teams of super-fit runners tirelessly running figures-of-eight in the expansive and gruelling desert sun (thirst-quenching refreshments provided). The mesmerising endurance and sense of team commitment is tangible, alongside an odd sense of endless and timeless time. Another room has a domestic feel with wallpaper, showing Lucy Gunning's video, 'The Footballers' (1996). Two women in white coats tackling a football in an empty gallery space.
The main SLG gallery, showing Aleksandra Mir's 'Triumph' (2009), is a garish spectacle of 2,529 personal trophies, piled high and clustered around plinths. Cheap, mass-produced tack with heavy symbolic significance, spanning 40 years of different designs. Reminded me of Indian wedding shops in East London; cheap gold overload, a mockery of original intentions. Mir collected these trophies over a year in Sicily, advertising in the local press and offering a token 5 euros: people were clearly happy to part with these symbols of a once-victorious moment. Playful responses to football are shown in the upstairs galleries.
The Wellcome show is more philosophical than some of their previous over-literal interpretations of ideas. The artworks and objects are given the space and context to communicate for themselves, allowing for complexity and without being killed by over-wordy explanations. The show asks questions and presents ideas about the moral and social implications of human enhancement technology; interweaving artists, scientists, ethicists, philosophers and policy-makers. Ideas include: immortality; the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs to boost brainpower in healthy people; the impact of human enhancement on competitive sport; the wider benefits to society of becoming 'better' people. Questioning whether we should always strive to be as 'normal' as possible, it presents the aftermath of the Thalidomide disaster, which left thousands of children born with shortened limbs. The government responded technologically, providing artificial arms and legs. But the children largely rejected these and preferred adaptation - learning to use their bodies in a ways that might seem unusual to the able-bodied. Rebecca Horn's finger extensions from the performance 'Scratching Both Walls at Once' (1974-5) are displayed in a cabinet nearby. Horn comments that she felt a tangible sense of her body's limits being extended when demonstrating these enhancements.
Matthew Barney's Cremaster series is shown, with model Aimee Mullins (a paralympian) in roles with different prosthetic legs. Challenging society's assumptions about disability, she says '...it's no longer about overcoming deficiency. It's a conversation about augmentation; ...about potential. A prosthetic limb does not need to replace loss anymore. It can stand for a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever it is that they want to create in that space, ...architects of their own identities.' A disturbing performance by Regina Jose Galdino, 'Cut Through The Line' (2005) shows a surgeon directly 'marking up' the body of a naked model standing on a lawn; illustrating the 'improvements' he would make.
So perhaps art and sport can mix.
# 21 [30 July 2012]
Writing and thinking about this blog has given me new energy and a liberating sense of potential. My art practice feels a bit ropey at the moment, so I'm hoping to address that too ...soon maybe. But I'm in a list mood, so here's a list of all the good things about doing a project blog:
Feels like I'm part of the art universe.
Keeps me thinking critically.
Reading other blogs opens me up to new ways.
A good excuse to see shows - when I have endless job applications to do.
I'm more purposeful when I go to shows - and feel more confident talking about ideas I'm interested in. Finding my voice and writing style.
Evidence that I'm still an artist - even though I'm not making significant work at the moment.
Feels good to have a space in my life that is open and exploratory - no planned endpoint or direction. Doing something just because I want to do it.
# 20 [30 July 2012]
The show, No Now!, invited the public to bring along work to be hung on the opening night (107 submissions). Fifteen artists were invited to contribute; an opportunity for the gallery to bring together artists they already work with, alongside some fairly new names. Celebrating 10 years, this show got top marks for my three words: hierarchy, access, equality. The standard of all work was very high and spaciously curated. Great to spend some time here and chat to folks. Felt honoured that my drawing was placed above a drawing by Mary Yacoob and near a Saskia Wolbers print.
Performances on Saturday afternoon.
Charlotte Young's artist statement: www.youtube.com/watch?v=3v8DbLWAXvU
A refreshing take the artist's plight. Makes me smile every time.
Lee Campbell: http://leecampbellartist.blogspot.co.uk/
Great website. Informed nonsense-playing.
# 19 [30 July 2012]
Tate Tanks Summer School: discursive exercises (open discussion)
With Five Years - worked with Tate since 2000
Other speakers from: Amateurist Network, http://amateuristnetwork.wordpress.com/
The Tate London Schools and Teachers Team worked with Five Years (Edward Dorrian) to explore possibilities for teaching and learning. Open invitation to propose an 'activity' for the school (about 30 participants) - all proposals accepted (published as a limited edition; an archive of ideas and working text). 'The museum as the site of this event and the role of the participants are opened up for more than mere spectacle or a moment of playful participation, but as an occasion of learning.'
I'm not sure this worked as a ticketed public event. Exchange score = 0.5. Quietly relieved that I didn't go into teaching. Best bit was Edwina Ashton's cute cats pussying about the space while the presentation was in full flow - a mildly subversive distraction that worked brilliantly, considering the institution (school/gallery).
# 18 [26 July 2012]
Jo Spence: Work (Part I and II)
Studio Voltaire www.studiovoltaire.org
Lambeth Women's project : www.lambethwomensproject.org
Jo Spence (1934-92) emerged in '70s, pioneering 'phototherapy', a form of co-counselling. The show is a brilliantly compiled celebration of her extensive work and process; playful and heart-wrenchingly awful. Photography as an empowering capacity, when applied to issues of: class, power, gender, health and the body.
Well-researched and supported by events, welcoming/informed staff, quality publicity. Good to see this work and address these issues in a gallery space.
Artist interested in education. My work is processed-based; using dialogue, drawing, sculpture and touch (physical and emotional) to engage meaningfullly with life. Currenlty work with adults with special needs.