Deveron Arts

Praktika: Huntly, Aberdeenshire: Socially engaged art practice

Conceived by Rosie Gibson and David Harding. Organised in collaboration with Deveron Arts. Edited by Claudia Zeiske.

ISBN 978-0-9555253-7-7

This review is long overdue. But perhaps it says something about the merits of this slender publication (48 pages) that I am now sitting down to write-up what I committed myself to some months ago.

Praktika: Huntly, Aberdeenshire: Socially engaged art practice makes public the findings of a workshop that took place over two days and three nights in March 2008. Conceived by Rosie Gibson and David Harding as a forum to engage with, and profile, a selection of socially engaged art practitioners in Scotland, the event was hosted by Deveron Arts, Huntly, who, the text makes clear, helped embed the project within the local community.

Divided into four sections, Praktika begins with an ‘Introduction’ by Gibson and Harding. This explains the rationale behind the original event: to discuss, critique and offer a positive challenge to contemporary socially engaged art practitioners. Their reason for publishing the results: to ‘offer an interesting and useful text to artists and others working in the field.’

Following Gibson and Harding’s ‘Introduction’ there is an insightful essay by Nuno Sacramento, shadow curator for Deveron Arts. Entitled ‘Maintaining the Tension in Hospitable Criticality’, this essay (really a reflection) teases out the tension between Sacramento’s two key themes: criticality and hospitality. As Sacramento writes, ‘I firmly believe that for the time art dealt mostly with inanimate objects one could deploy criticality alone, but now that it consistently involves people this has to be counter-balanced with hospitality. In a basic sense people must have a reason for wanting to be involved.’

What is refreshing about Sacramento’s essay is its honesty; having been challenged by the Praktika event and the feedback he received from an earlier draft of his essay to rethink his position. Previously Sacramento had emphasised criticality to the neglect of hospitality; something he ‘never felt the need to question’ before. Although brief in exploration, the conclusion of Sacramento’s essay is bold. ‘I would suggest’, writes Sacramento, ‘that the way in which artists use criticality and hospitality in relation to their publics will probably now become the most important methodological question of socially engaged practices.’ (My italics.) This, to my mind, is wonderfully provocative and it sets out a clear, if contestable, way forward for theorising and practicing future forms of socially engaged art.

Theory, however, is always embedded, as the third section, ‘The Artists’, demonstrates. Here we have a series of presentations and accompanying black and white images from thirteen socially engaged art practitioners – all of whom work in urban contexts (which is perhaps one limitation of this particular publication). Taken as a whole, the presentations provide valuable insights into socially engaged art, including the challenges artists face as they try to negotiate the different roles and expectations they are commissioned to fulfil. Again, what is refreshing about these presentations is the way the artists reflect upon their own practice in light of the Praktika event. Evidence, I suspect, that the balance of criticality and hospitality must have been achieved: where dialogue leads to more articulate (and sometimes acerbic, in the case of Alex Hetherington) self-positioning and not to its dilution.

Following these presentations Gibson and Harding return to the scene with a concluding chapter entitled ‘Rendering Discussions’. Here Gibson and Harding draw on the previous presentations to discuss key themes arising from and for socially engaged art practice. These range from the contextual nature of socially engaged art practice, the difference between collaboration and participation, notions of reconciliation and transformation (or as Janie Nicoll provocatively puts it: using ‘artists as sticking plasters’), engagement as a measure for the success or failure of a project, the need to negotiate the highs (or ‘magic moments’) and lows of a project, the various merits of making process visible, and the different roles played by artists within the different contexts of their practice: facilitator, activist, megaphone, juggler, entertainer, bridge, and researcher. By drawing-out these themes from the thirteen artists involved in Praktika, Gibson and Harding are able to cover a diversity of topics without overshadowing the real work that Praktika sought to achieve: the increased self-awareness of 13 contemporary socially engaged art practioners and the sharing of their experience with their audience (in this case their reader).

As a final guide for interested parties Praktika ends with a brief bibliography. (Perhaps a reading list for groups interested in replicating the sort of workshop that this publication documents?) Indeed, Gibson and Harding’s suggestion, that the Praktika workshop might act as a model ‘not only for socially engaged art practice, but also for all other art forms’, seems, to this reviewer – a practising artist who feels the lack of such a forum – eminently desirable. I hope this review goes some way to promoting that aim.

Unlikely to appear in a bookshop near you, the best way to buy this book – or to order a copy for your library – is through the Deveron Arts website: £6 should see you right.