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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.