Erica Scourti – collaboration

The second artist I met was Erica Scourti. I wanted to meet her for a couple of reasons. Firstly she is working in contexts that I would like to – regularly doing residencies and making video and digital work that has a presence online and in exhibitions and screenings. Secondly she sources and uses language/verbal content in interesting ways. Thirdly, she uses forms of participation or crowd sourcing to create her work and I wanted to ask her how she thinks about collaboration.

Erica’s work is well documented on her website (http://www.ericascourti.com/). Some of my favourite examples include ‘Life in AdWords’ for which she e-mailed her diary to Gmail and performed the resultant list of suggested key words in a series of videos. Also ‘Twenty Press Releases’ which used key words provided by artists to explain their work to generate quasi-nonsensical texts that were then shown alongside her work.

Not all of Erica’s work is collaborative but she often uses material generated or performed by others. For example ‘Reality Life’ involves the titles of reality TV shows being performed by teenage girls. I asked Erica about how she conceives of her relationship to the people she works with. I realised that the way she asks people to create content for her is the reverse of how I have been doing it. Where I have spoken to people as a starting point and then shaped an artwork depending on the content that comes from the conversations, she largely beings with quite a clear structure and a clear request of what she wants from people. Their content is inserted into a pre-given format. This sets her up very clearly as the author of the work and is perhaps a more efficient way of working as opposed to having a lot of content, much of which gets jettisoned. It also gives a clear request to people about what you want them to do and what is going to happen to that content.

Erica acknowledged that working this way can still be hard on a personal level. Essentially she is making relationships with people but seeing these relationships as ‘work.’ People give things to you and you are instrumentalising them as the material for your art piece. One way she manages this is to offer people something in return. Currently, for example, she is sending people video postcards as part of a project. Within particular project relationships with each individual will vary, sometimes she has very brief encounters with people and sometimes they might have a long conversation or have a relationship that goes unseen in the work. I guess that within Erica’s work, which deals very much with digital-content and the socially-networked word, the question of interpersonal relationships and power dynamics is pertinent. The fact that her work makes me think about the ethics of using teenage girls (who she sourced from a website for people who want to get into working in TV) is interesting. ‘Reality Life’ is a good artwork that makes me a bit uncomfortable, but then gets me reflecting on how young people are and behave online more generally.

Alongside her own practice, Erica works on commissions including community and education projects and at times the relationship between the two has blurred but she attempts to split them quite clearly. She has separate sections on her website and she thinks that it is useful for being seen as an ‘artist’ to keep your own work separate from what are commissioned, community based projects. I imagine there are also times when the converse is true, perhaps there are aspects of her artwork that she must keep separate. The power dynamics of a collaborative process in an education/community setting is different. She sees these projects as a collaborative process where she is not the ‘author’ but is working with, for example, a group of young people to create a work together. The outcome is not her artwork but something they have made together. The two ways of working can support and influence each other but also have to be kept distinct.


Emma Smith – collaboration (part 2)

…continued from the previous post

I was interested to hear from Emma how the Waterbeach project feels a bit less like her own work than her other pieces which she initiated. With her other projects she beings with the question ‘who do I want to work with and who wants to work with me?’ Often this will begin with meeting people in their own spaces on their terms, telling them about the project and asking if they would like to be involved. For example she talked about finding people to work with at The Showroom gallery for ‘Playback’ – a game of communication. She visited existing groups and introduced herself to them, to begin a discussion, rather than inviting people to the gallery in the first instance.

Another ongoing work ‘Change in Energy=Work was initially developed with an Artsadmin bursary based upon a research question asking what does it mean to have performance based, rather than object based outcomes? The work is research based and ongoing. Each performance is an iteration of the work, testing how far they have got with the project so far. In terms of the performance, Emma Smith is the artist and is credited as the author of the work but the other contributors get credited for their role too. Emma provided a good reasoning that it is very important for being clear about where responsibility for the piece lies. As part of the research process people may share some intimate stories or experiences. To create an environment of trust it is important that there is a person who is ultimately responsible and accountable for what happens.

The contributors for an iteration at Arnolfini (Jan 2013) were a phoneticist, particle physicist, musicologist, molecular biologist, tai-chi master and improvised movement practitioners. Other members of the public are invited to participate in rehearsals and an event/performance but are not involved in the core group of research collaborators.

I asked Emma whether she offers a fee to people she collaborates with. She said it depends on the situation. Generally if people need to be there for the project to happen then she would aim to pay them. Or if they are invited in to bring a specialism she requires. However in some instances she works with people that are being paid from elsewhere (e.g. academics) and who are working with her because it also furthers their own research. With the people who she works with ‘Change in Energy=Work’ she often develops ongoing research relationships from which both parties benefit.

I’ll write a bit more about my conversations with Emma in upcoming posts. I recommend having a look at her website to see more of her work, it provides a good example of collaboration being inherent to a really interesting body of work. http://www.emma-smith.com/


Emma Smith – collaboration (part 1)

Emma Smith is an artist whose work I came across earlier this year when I was doing internet research about public art in and around Cambridge area. Emma did a project, creating a permanent game for the village of Waterbeach. ‘In Hear it and Say’reminded me a little of some projects I have done appropriating forms of public signage or locating texts around a particular building or site, but is more ambitious than my work and the interaction people have with Emma’s work is much more explicit. Looking further into Emma’s work I was interested in how she collaborates with others

The Waterbeach project was funded by Cambridge District Council through the 106 agreement. Emma was appointed after applying to an open call and then being interviewed by a group of residents from Waterbeach. She said it was an interesting experience, doing a presentation and then answering questions from a large group of residents but it was nice to know that they had selected her. Sometimes public/participatory work is imposed on people who don’t want you to work with them. She knew the village wanted this. So although the normal power relationshions to be negotiated in any collaborative practice were still there and people have different agendas, there was a general good will for the project.

She worked with a steering group from the community and also with the local council. The project happened over 2 years and was an open ended residency although there was some stipulation for an object based outcome. It was informal but organised, she sent them plans and evaluation every 2 months and there was a collective meeting every 2 months.

Through the project she had different groups and configurations of people that she was working with. Activities included ‘events’ that were drop in and advertised and then meetings with those she wanted to work with more closely. Often the former were a strategy for obtaining the latter (rather than workshops for example), a way to find people and to understand who was in the village. Making such collaborative relationships is also a way to enable something different/more than one can do alone. Different people bring skills and different levels of investment.

Emma does not see ‘collaboration’ as needing to mean equal, social practice has hierarchies. She is concerned that the idea of the artist facilitating people to do things can become patronising and divisive by placing the artist as separate from community. This is also how she feels about educational engagement that is run alongside exhibitions. There is an idea of people being in position of a state of lack that art makes better. This idea of an empowerment process is top down and can actually obscure where power lies, making it less clear. Artists bring their experience as professionals and this should be valued and recognised. With her projects, the final artwork is authored by her as the person who takes responsibility for the work. She works with people with knowledge/skills that she doesn’t have and in bringing those she does have collaboration becomes something more than what any party could do on their own.

…continued in the next post


In Certain Places

One of my meetings was with Elaine Speight, a freelance curator who spends much of her time working for In Certain Places, a programme of temporary public artworks in Preston. In Certain Places works with artists without a brief and over a significant period of time (perhaps a year or two) to develop an idea that relates to/responds to a place and/or its people. So the organisation’s relationship with artists is incremental and always developing.

At my meeting with Elaine, I spoke to her about how I feel less happy with some of my commissioned pieces than my ‘studio’ based practice, but I do not think that this is inherently because working with place is wrong for me. She responded that she can see a coherence running through the projects in my portfolio but that some of them are more interesting to her than others. To put it bluntly, these seem to be the projects that I did off my own back that weren’t money earners. I wonder partly if this is because I put less pressure on myself about these projects and give myself permission to be more playful?

I think it is also to do with time and to do with uncertainty about who or what the work represents. In my studio-based work I tend to play around with language as a formal element and with the double meanings of words (for example). More recently I have used conversations with individuals within particular communities as generators for verbal material. The constraint to have an outcome NOW and a feeling of not being able to muck around with people’s words too much means that I have somewhat quoted people verbatim, I haven’t manipulated the words that much. The ‘art’ part comes in, in the selection and sequencing of content and where it is sited, rather than altering it in any way. I have written a bit more about this elsewhere about how a current project I am doing explicitly involves manipulating content generated by others .

An issue that came up repeatedly, in my meeting with Elaine and in later meetings with artists, is framing. How is the project presented to those who are contributing or within whose locale it takes place? What is their expectation of the outcome? I wrote in my last post about the difficulties of being critical or provocative in a place you don’t know very well. Related to this, I had an interesting discussion with Elaine about artists coming to a place quite briefly to do a project. In her view this can be fine if properly handled, but the curator has a role of being more embedded and providing a permanent presence or more overarching programme.

An important element of working with curators is that they might act as a buffer and as a conversation partner. Elaine talked realistically about her own role and how 90% of it is project management and 10% is artistic discussions. But she is very aware of making space for such artistic discussions. With this in mind she is currently putting together a programme of lectures/events to talk about critical contexts for art related to place and the practical concerns of this; aside the rhetoric of ‘public art’ and regeneration.

It was also interesting to hear how In Certain Places don’t set out to work specifically with artists who have a site-specific or participatory way of working. They select artists whose work they are interested in and then find a way to work with them. This is the same for Pavilion who do extensive research to find artists with whom they wish to work.



One of the questions that curator Elaine Speight asked me is: “Who is your audience?” Well, at times I am interested in an accidental audience, who might happen across an intervention in a public place without an awareness that it is ‘art’. I am keen on work in public places that is quite slight and not imposing but that has the potential to shift someone’s reading, understanding or engagement with that place (for example my works ‘Prepare to Cheer and Good Rule and Governance attempt to do this). In a sense then, the audience for this could be everyone and no-one. Or is that just a cop-out?!

In some recent work, the audience has been the people who contribute something to the work. Plus others from their locality. For ‘Kindness Is…’ (with Jonathan Turner) and ‘What will the family think if they pull up outside?’ I spoke to or interviewed individuals to generate content for an artwork. The works were conceived for particular community settings and could not be exhibited outside those settings, although similar works/processes could be repeated elsewhere.

It is these two projects in particular that have got me thinking about collaboration, participation and community. Where does the authorship of a work lie? What responsibility does an artist have to the community in which they are working? Most of my previous public-realm work happened in a context with which I was familiar, a city or town that I had lived in and thus felt like I had the right to say what I wanted about them. My work isn’t super-critical because that’s just not my style but I like to try and be gently provocative about what are the rules or expectations that frame a particular place. I felt I could do this, for example, in the piece I made for Morley Literature Festival because it was a town I had lived in for 6 years and I could do it with affection. It is also perhaps relevant that for projects where I was paid less (only about as much as to cover my costs and perhaps a small fee) I didn’t feel beholden to represent anyone’s interests apart from my own.

Going to another place and making work is challenging and it also depends on who is commissioning you. Erica Scourti put it well, saying that criticality in a public realm setting can be a way to “bite the hand that feeds you.” This resonates with my own feelings about my 2 recent, fairly well funded projects based in particular communities. I probably tired to make the work that was wanted, more than the work I wanted to make. I think this is why organisations like In Certain Places (with whom Elaine is a curator) and Pavilion are interesting. They broker relationships between artists and particular places or communities and are interested in a critical edge. Moreover they bring an ‘art’ audience to projects and help create a legacy for the work as part of a wider programme.

I’ve diverged from the question of audiences a bit, but to get back to it… don’t want the context of my work to be only the art world yet I want to develop an ongoing audience who maintains an interest in what I do from project to project and not just a particular project they encounter in their locality. This is most likely to include other artists and curators. I am also interested in locating my work within a critical context that, though it doesn’t only exist in institutions, is mostly found in art galleries, project spaces, curatorial programmes, publishing and academia. These are the things I am thinking about for the work I am making next.