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.


Questions for artists

As a prelude to writing up some more reflective notes from my meetings with Emma Smith and Erica Scourti. Here are some of the questions that I asked them. It makes apparent some of the things I am thinking about for my own work:

-How do you find and create opportunities for your work?

-How do you initiate, develop and structure projects?

-How do you think about the process of collaboration and find people to collaborate with? (existing contacts?, ‘types’ of people i.e. professional expertise, initiating relationships, managing expectations and keeping people informed, their authorship? What do they get out of it? payment?)

-What is your working relationship with collaborators and commissioners?

-How do you find funding for your work?

-Who do you think are your audience?

-How do you critically locate your practice?

-What is the legacy for your work after a particular event or commission has taken place?

-Does/How does one project lead to another?…how do you narrate your practice when you look back at past work, how do you imagine your practice looking into the future?


Exercises in style

Matthew Hearn asked me ‘why did you use that/those fonts?’

My answer would vary from project to project – I don’t know/I had to choose something/ it looked right/ I was mimicking the look of something else/ it was from the right time period/ I had the font already installed on my computer.

I am not a typographer or a designer but I often use language in text form in my work and I do struggle a bit to choose fonts for my work. In a similar vein, the question ‘Why did you use those colours?’ might also be pertinent. I find it easiest to decide when my work is mimicking something else, such as public signage. Then I can just copy that look (although proper typographers might berate my lack of precision). When I did a project in an historic country house I chose fonts that were relevant to key periods in that house’s history. At other times I have used fonts where the look and spacing of the lettering just seems to ‘fit’ with the content of the work. Sometimes I want the words to be very visual, sometimes I want them to almost be invisible and for the content to be more important.

But a slightly scattergun and making-it-up as I go along approach has led to my portfolio looking rather haphazard with different appearances. Does it matter? Do I mind? Thinking of artists like
Lawrence Weiner or Kay Rosen, they have a very identifiable ‘look’ for their work. I am not sure that this is what I am after, but does there need to be a consistent thread?

The same sort of variation occurs in the type of language I use. Sometimes long, narrative, sometimes short and playing with words. The ‘voice’ of the text varies from project to project and depending on the context of each. Sometimes this is particular or quite considered, sometimes this is just because it feels right or I need to choose something. Matthew suggested that I read ‘Exercises in Style’ a book by Raymond Queneau where the same story is told in multiple different ways. I have a copy on order!