The theme for this session was ‘Relationship between art and society’ and it was our last bursary supported session. It was led by Catherine Harrington and myself.

We started by looking at images of artworks that have a focus on making social change – one that has inspired and may have influenced our art practice. Those artworks were selected by each of us in advance.

The list of the art works

Jimena: “Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance – Outside and Inside“ (1973) by artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles.

Bettina: “Not This Future“(2020)  by Youngsook Choi

Mirei : An improvised Butoh dance (2009) by Atsushi Takenouchi at London Goldsmiths College

Karen: “Wheatfield – A Confrontation” (performed at Lat image it recreated in Milan, 2015) by Agnes Denes

Candy: A drone flew abortion pills into Northern Ireland by Women on Web

Colleen: “The long table!”(Since 2003) by Lois Weaver.

Catherine: an untitled installation (2020) by an anonymous artist created during black history month in London (see pictures below)

Ghost and John: “Tarzan (2019)”by God’s Entertainment (EU)

Those  works were very different and interesting!!

“Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance – Outside and Inside“ made me feel that this work presented a sort of pure, clever fine-art approach to bring attention to the workings of the gallery.  “Not This Future“ seems interesting and possibly using Youtube as a platform effectively but the video is 2 hours 38minutes and I have not watched everything yet. “Wheatfield – A Confrontation” seemed really successful work with the community. ‘Women on Web’ is really a special action by a doctor. I was curious about the reason that would people talk about this in a fine-art context. “The long table!” is a really good platform for all sorts of discussion about society. It really reminds me of body movement or music improvisation. The untitled installation was such a beautiful and proper way of treating its subject matter. ”God’s Entertainment (EU)” is an interesting performance that I wish I could have seen.

Through this section, we were able to see different approaches and their impact on society and also learn what each of us in the group are interested in and to understand each other more deeply.

On Being Incidental – Talks from Sarah Andrew and Anne Bean

Next, I introduced the  concept of the ‘Incidental Person’ that was coined by John Latham in the 60’s. This was followed by the guest artist Sara Andrew talking about her approach in her art practice as an incidental person, an artist and a lawyer.

Sara suggested this concept of the  ‘incidental person’ to me before and during the session. I think it is helpful.

She said:

  • If we want to make change as an incidental person, we have to know which part of society and  what kind of change we want to make.
  • We have to be able to speak the language of the organisation that you are working with and trying to impact to.

The group ‘Space Hijackers‘ that she was involved in seems like poetic activism. It made me remember T.A.Z.

Then Anne Bean (our next guest artists) showed us images from her projects, one of which was ‘Redress (Decade)’ that has strong  artistic vocabularies on social issues. Humans have emotions and thoughts that are waiting to be expressed by artistic works. I think that Anne’s work did it.  She introduced her current project ‘African incidentalism with people in Zambia.

Regarding the performance series ‘Come Hell or HighWater’, it was  interesting to activate the space of unknown supervision.

On community

Then this  was followed by a discussion on  how we work with communities.

– We discussed the space for art activity.

A reference: ‘Is this a Waste Land? (2017)

– What can artists do to strengthen the social fabrics of communities?

A reference: Luke Ching: Artist-Citizen

– We discussed issues around ethics and whether the artist should take funding from organisations that supports something they are against.

We referenced:

Take the money and run? – an event about ethics, funding and art

The Artists’ Lottery Syndicate

– The problem of not paying proper wages to artists.

We referenced: The artist’s bond

– Where is our community?

Our form of community has been shifted after covid-19. We recognise local communities  more and on the other hand found online communities with people who are physically distant.

We referenced:

An Experiment for Radio Neighbourhood by Ghost and John  (artists starting to use discord to build online communities)

This session left us with some thoughts and questions as follows:

– How to find funding? How to gain trust as a professional artist when you are starting out?

– How to find a space for art activity? We are losing empty space that we can use year by year.  Also, how to contact the person who owns the empty space?

– We would like to know what a day of  today’s  “bread  winning artist” is like, maybe we could  invite someone to our future session.

– We should possibly find out more from each other about where we come from and are going as an artist.

I tend to talk about big academic issues and concepts such as capitalism or democracy. It was really good that we really questioned practical issues such as funding, art space and time allocation for production, admin, etc. We were able to exchange some information about it but we needed more time. We have to find out what we can do in the future.

*We had a plan to do some reading from 21 lessons and Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, an exercise on padlet and google draw and to visit an online exhibition but did not have time for that. I think it was very good that we held the discussion instead.

Photographs: An untitled installation (2020) by an anonymous artist created during black history month in London




Karen Le Roy Harris reflects on our last bursary supported study session.

Mirei and Catherine who were running this week’s session set us a task to find a piece of work that inspired us in relation to our role as both artist and activist. I struggled to find an artist I felt successfully did both without compromise and welcomed everything the group had to share.

Everyone shared something very different and moved between the spaces of art and activism. The one thing they all shared was an element of the live performance about them. No-one shared a static painting, drawing or sculpture. They were often live, performance based, subject to change and often involved participation from others. Whether it be Youngsook Choi’s live performance on youtube “Not This Future” where she lovingly wrapped 39 dried fish in a ritual commenting on the 39 Vietnamese migrants who were found dead in a shipping container. The artist also created a shrine from an open call where people could send offerings for the ceremony. Or whether it be the small stone figures Catherine came across laid anonymously on the ground, close together as if in the bowel of a ship. It appeared in front of the statue of slave owner Edward Colston like a memorial, surrounded by words linked to modern day slavery such as “fruit picker” and “sex worker”. From all of the nine works shared by the group they highlighted injustices around minimum wage workers, migrants, women’s abortion rights, democracy, colonialism, slavery, the effects or war, identity, the environment and food resources. I also felt like the work was very emotive, but in a quiet way. There was no shouting, but more observing or being witness to something or physically experiencing a place or moment. Even the ‘Abortion drone’ delivering pills to people that needed them was a type of performance and a more intimate action. There was something in this quiet that gave room for reflection and developing your own thoughts, which is why I’m careful how I use activism in my own work. How can you raise questions and allow people to explore and reflect on ideas for themselves without being told what to do/think?

We had two brilliant guest artists present to us – the first being Sara Andrew who first trained as a lawyer and then became an artist. I was interested to see how her two roles as artist and lawyer collided. Reclaiming space and using a legal framework and knowledge to do this seemed very key to her work. She mentioned several works including “Siesta,” where they dressed as bankers and slept in public spaces, reclaiming them as spaces used for something other than work, as well as commenting on the bank’s counterproductivity during a bailout that cost the public billions. In a more recent work “Come Hell or High Water”, Sara managed to find a piece of land under no-one’s jurisdiction within Canary Wharf – a space ordinarily under private control. They managed to reclaim the land for the public and curated a series of artworks and performances bringing joy and inspiration to this shared space.

The second artist Anne Bean (who collaborated on “Come Hell or High Water”) shared another work looking at liminal spaces which started out in an abandoned building she found in Southwark Park. A macho space that was once used for dog fighting with cages lining the rooms. Anne interrupted the space simply by hanging floral dresses in the rooms and the surrounding park area. Soon other women who saw the dresses brought along their own dresses and contributed to the space. It became a shared space of contemplation where eventually the dresses deteriorated and formed part of the space again completely shifting and re-aligning the mood and intention of the place.

The dress became a powerful symbol for Anne’s future projects connecting women together. In Kurdistan-Iraq she collaborated with Kurdish women affected by the Kurdish genocide during the Anfal campaign against the Kurds. Women brought their floral dresses to a prison compound, where the dresses lay on the ground tied to helium balloons. Slowly the women cut out the flowers from the dresses and as the flowers adorned the ground, the dresses grew light and some eventually floated away out of the prison and over the city with the women singing. I was moved by such an intimate action between a community of women and it was beautiful to see the image of a dress floating away as if the spirit was being released with the fragments of flowers left behind.

In both their work there is a sense of interrupting a space and transcending or shifting its meaning whether that be from a private to public reclaiming of a space or through a shared community experience like the dresses that shifts the energy and meaning of a place. The spaces they worked with were outside of the gallery or institution and were usually a shared public space and often outdoors. I also loved how their work allowed for a chance encounter and the possibility of seeing something you didn’t expect to see in that place and the sense of wonder that brings.

Their presentations brought into question many thoughts about art, community and accessibility.

How can you engage people outside the institution?

How can you truly collaborate with the community?

How can you give voice to others or share a space and voice?

How can we occupy and use spaces available to us?

How can you transform the meaning of a space?

Discussions went on to how our role as an artist is often multiple and is an organic process that develops through our different relationships and connections we create. Many questions were raised such as:

How do we dissolve boundaries?

How do we embody the change we want to see?

How can we establish a methodology for expression?

It also raised the question of community and who this was for each of us. Some of us felt disconnected to our local community and others felt their community was through their shared passions and others felt their community was predominantly global and online which had been further acknowledged during Covid19.

I was left inspired, wondering what can we reclaim, what can we shift or interrupt and how can we do this in a way that moves us and reconnects us to each other both locally and across borders.


FrancisJohn Chan’s Reflection on the Study Group – Art/Activism, initiated by Bettina Fung.

This study group session, led by Bettina Fung and Karen Le Roy Harris, bleeds beyond the hours on my calendar, has me thinking about how we artists/activists organise, how we mobilise ourselves and where do we sit in the greater ecology of the capitalist society.

Each of us in the group got a brown envelope, inside a handwritten letter, a hand drawn shopping list, a reading and another small white envelope, which says. “Please only open on 3rd January 2021 during the session.” We were hinted to be having a guest, an audio-guided cooking activity and a self-conducted exercise later that day. Also definitely the tradition part of a study group: readings.

The evening before the session, I found myself holding my iPad, reading Jo Freeman and Starhawk, while stirring lentils in a pot with cinnamon sticks, peppercorn, garam masala and more spices. These writings are reflections on collaborative groups of activists, manual for self-organised groups, or account of historical events about ecofeminism, the Chipko women for instance.

With a bowl of dumplings with noodles in front of my macbook, I sat ready for the study group to start. Sofia Kosmaoglou “arrived” with her mic not working, and had to do the log-out log-in thing. The group then did a kind of self-introduction that we somehow haven’t done. We talked about our experiences in self-organising: political and environmental activism, alternative education, contact improvisation, artistic events.

We asked a lot of questions with Sofia. One of them stood out so much: “Who gets to be the artist?” The word “artist”, later I realised, can be replaced by many others: “leader”, “star”, “activist” … Or maybe the other way of framing this could be: “Who gets to have a voice?” In a world of perfect structure and system, we get safe space to express our thoughts, be listened to, and have time to listen to other’s. Unfortunately, we aren’t in one. What now then? Especially when you catch yourself holding the mic, contemplating on what you can do and what you should say is then crucial to understand your privileges and responsibilities.

We did a role-play with a nasty scenario where internal conflict in an organisation is hindering its functioning, broken relationship between members. Each of us were assigned a leadership role described in Starhawk’s book: Grace, Dragon, Crow, Spider, or Snake. They each represent a position that one takes to better the group’s functioning, its well-being. Spider watches the group’s communication; Dragon is the group’s guardian and protector. (Okay, it’s a bit more complex than this, but that’s all I have for now.) The magical thing about this practice of having a role for you to speak through, other than being an animal, is: in its most natural way, authorises you to be holding the mic and, at the same time, put you in a position to be hyper-aware of your job.

Reflecting on my own practice, often in collaborative projects I initiated, I attempt to release power, responsibility and authorship to my collaborators. I usually achieve through the means of making sure everyone has the same access to information and resources. This exercise of picking up multiple leadership roles opens up my imagination towards how we define jobs, positions and authority, and how we can reach co-authorship.

Moving onto the cooking activity, we left our laptops for a bit, and cooked while listening to an audio track where Bettina and Karen instruct us to heat up some oil, chop some vegetables, throw in some spices, and make a vegetable fry dish. As we digitally re-gathered with our cooked dishes laid on our kitchen table, conversations did not then become more shallow or daily, but our tables extended across screens, breaking through boundaries of space and geographical distance, and held us together through the simple act of making a dish and dining together. Intellectually, we all understood that our plates could taste totally different. However, nothing is more real than the fact that: this little self-organised group was here dining together.

The same old question: what makes a community? It has to be more than just people gathering, asking questions, looking into various knowledge bases, creating brave spaces for conversations to happen. How can we move on from talking to doing? How can we truly have “takeaways” from these study groups sessions and make changes in our world, little by little? Looking at the flakes of spices left on my hob, I think I found out a little more after this long session.

A lot more happened. A lot more needs to happen, including a self-conducted postcard drawing, writing and posting activity that we need to complete separately. On our own, but together, in some sense. :)