Where a public art practice seeks to use art to impact specific sites, a social practice seeks to use art to impact particular social systems. Systems being understood as the way we make decisions, the way we communicate, the way we do things and the places and people we value. In much the same way a public art artist would create something for a particular place, a social practice artist creates something to critique or celebrate a particular social relationship.
There is a connection between the way a society understands the role of the artist in that society and the way the artist feels about herself. After all, that artist is brought up in that society and she is creating in that society. She will have internalized the perceptions of the place of the artist even as she grows into seeing herself as holding that place. I believe those perceptions influence the artist’s relationship to her own practice and her sense of what is possible and desirable in it.
If that artist moves herself out of her society and relocates to a new society, her perceptions will change. If she is open to it, she may be uniquely sensitive to the relationship between her new society and the artist in it. This sensitivity will create both an opportunity for her to communicate with her new society about what she sees and for them to critique her understanding. Together, the artist and her new society will develop a deeper understanding of the role of the artist within that society and what about that role needs to be protected and challenged. She will also have the opportunity to look at her understanding of her own place in society and how that affects her sense of self and possibility.
This is the situation in which I find myself. Since moving to the UK I have had the opportunity to hear many artists talk about their practice. This idea of the artist’s studio engagement being a practice is not common in the States. Artists in the States tend to talk about their work. The difference between a relationship to your work and to your practice seems very significant to me. An artist’s discussion of work seems focused on the objects that are created, be they sculpture, writing or dance. An artist’s discussion of practice seems focused on the ideas that may or may not find expression in works of art. A societal acceptance of the artist’s discussion of practice, as opposed to product, is the result of a shared belief (shared between society and artist) in the importance of ideas. This is not to say that artists or society are not interested in creating objects. It has more to do with an unapologetic engagement with ideas and the public acknowledgment of the important role that engagement plays in society.
Of course artists in the States think. However, the language we have adopted to talk about our thinking is the language of business. If work is the acknowledged goal than the artist’s studio becomes a place of production. What happens in her studio becomes a commodity. If a society equates value with the production of things, that value will influence the artist’s own relationship to her work. Her success will be measured by what she makes and not by her dedicated engagement to ideas. It is difficult to commodify thinking.
– Bristol, November 2011
It is difficult to write when so much is up in the air. We are preparing to leave Bristol as a consequence of our visa expiring in 11 days. We have had and continue to have visitors whose arrival is both lovely and disruptive to our daily life. I have been traveling which is both a gift of an opportunity (not to mention so easy here!) and also disruptive to our daily life. And we have a family-ful of feelings and anxieties about what we are leaving and where we are going. Each experience adds to our lives at a time when each of us may prefer to make time stand still.
dOCUMENTA was wonderful for me. The fact that we had just a day to spend there made the decision to spend more time with fewer works an easy one and it was the perfect way for me to approach such a massive show. William Kentridge’s opera, A Refusal of Time, used the space of the old train station beautifully. The black and white imagery danced and skipped along the walls as the music and text filled the space between them. It is a masterful use of multi-layered, pared down materials.
It was very important for me to spend time inside Theaster Gate’s Huguenot House. With all due humility, I have to say we share some of the same concerns about urban life in the States and its disproportionate hardship for African Americans. He has been able to do things in Chicago that I have found difficult to do in St. Louis and I have wondered why. Spending time in his space in Kassel and discussing how it felt and what ideas it brought to mind helped me to understand where he is coming from in his work. It is a different place than where I am coming from and the strength of the work is in his ability to own his perspective and create the work from there. I can’t be Theaster Gates. I can only be Ilene Berman. My desire to positively impact the racial history of St. Louis comes from my own sense of justice and humanity. I need to own that. Being surrounded by Theaster Gate’s voice, helped me to own my own voice.
In some ways I think Francis Alys’s small quiet exhibit of encaustic and oil paintings, although very different in scale, reinforced this idea of owning my own voice as did the tapestries of Hannah Ryggen. As we prepare to leave Bristol, spending time recommitting to my voice seems particularly significant. Transitions can be a time where things are lost or they can be opportunities to cement ideas that are important. I don’t want to lose what I have gained here.
I think What is the Function of an Artist? is truly a durational project. It seems to make sense that, to understand whether or not the responses I have received while living this year in Bristol reflect a pre-austerity appreciation of the arts, I will need to ask the question again in the future. As I prepare to hang the posters in public, I am aware that the project will say one thing now and, quite likely, something else in two, five, ten years’ time. This is both exciting and frustrating.
Is the measure of a work found in its being able to say something definitive? If so, does that something need to be said now? Does it make sense to talk about this work now and, if so, in what context? What am I communicating? To whom?
I am drawn to work that takes years to be realized. I find that sort of commitment by other artists inspiring. In his ‘Time Exchange’ project, José Antonio Vega Macotela spends five years exchanging time in the world with time in a prison with the prisoners of a Mexican jail. He completes tasks for the prisoners outside of the prison in exchange for them using the same amount of time to complete a task for the artist inside the prison. Of the project, he says: The conclusions that I have reached are still vague; they are slowly taking shape as I write and think back on what took place over almost five years. Even now, no matter how much I write, remember and reflect, the Gracian quote keeps coming back to me: ‘We have nothing of our own except time.’
I like José’s willingness to publicly own the vagueness of his conclusions. Although our year here is coming to an end, I guess the same cannot be said about this project. Once the posters have had an in situ experience, I may have something else to say about them. From there, what I remember about my time here once I am reflecting on it back in St. Louis may, again, impact my understanding. As the global conversation around austerity continues, it too may play a part in how these first responses are experienced. This is the beauty of durational work, its place is not static. I am going to have to be comfortable with vague conclusions.
First of all, you don’t have to speak truth to power, because they know it already. And secondly, you don’t speak truth to anybody, that’s too arrogant. What you do is join with people and try to find the truth, so you listen to them and tell them what you think and so on, and you try to encourage people to think for themselves.
The ones you are concerned with are the victims, not the powerful, so the slogan ought to be to engage with the powerless and help them and help yourself to find the truth. It’s not an easy slogan to formulate in five words, but I think it’s the right one.
– Noam Chomsky, Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Tresilian
I am coming late to this interview but sometimes you read things when you need them. Having taken myself away from the community in which I am regularly engaged and having had several conversations with people who are actively trying to use art to change things in their communities, I have been faced with the question over and over again of why I am concerned with being part of the conversation of the ‘powerful.’ What is the relationship between that group and the people I want to impact? Am I looking for permission? for acknowledgement? for respect? And if I am, from whom am I looking for it?
As an artist, it is important to be thoughtful, listening and aesthetically strong. Who is my audience? As Chomsky says, you don’t have to speak truth to power, because they know it already. For NODhouse, Grand Center knows they aren’t engaged north of Delmar. For NODtoBristol, the current government knows austerity cuts are only being proposed for sectors with the least political and economic clout (so they, in turn, can fight amongst themselves for the scraps). My engagements in these pieces are not with the powerful. The focus of my practice is with the powerless. That is absolutely clear to me in the studio however, what throws me off-course is my desire to be acknowledged by the powerful of the art world. If they too already know the truths, then what is my relationship to them? Do I want to engage with them? If so, what do I want that engagement to be?
Accessibility to the art world powerful seems possible. There is a perception that all that matters is that the work is good and that, given the artist’s perseverance good work will be noticed. Maybe that’s not true. Or maybe it is. But maybe it’s not important. Maybe what is important is to engage with the powerless and help them and yourself to find the truth. Maybe, the question to ask myself is whether or not I have done that each day.
NODtoBristol is going a bit more public more this week. A couple of the images are in a show at Motorcade/FlashParade and I am scheduled for a slot at Spike Island’s Open Day Speakers’ Corner. I am comfortable with the images being in a show and am curious if they will resonate with people without whom I have discussed the “what is the function of an artist?” question. However, the Speaker’s Corner is another issue all together.
The whole idea of stepping into a space and just talking is strange to me. My practice is based in relationships and the idea of speaking to no one in particular is the opposite of speaking to someone in a conversation. How do I frame the conversation? Am I trying to get people to engage? How do I do that? People will be mulling about, moving from one event to the next and I am just supposed to stand up and start talking. I had asked if I could put a small table on the platform thinking it would help create a space for dialogue but the organizers said no. I am supposed to get on the platform, speak for 5 or 10 minutes and then continue the conversation with whomever is interested after stepping down.
I have created a prop of sorts. I printed images of 20 of the what is the function of an artist? responses. I may begin by reading these aloud. I also thought I might hand them out to people in the hopes of starting a dialogue. They could read them aloud and we could talk about them. What do I want them to know about these responses? Why do I think they are important? What do I think they express? Is there a larger context for the responses? I think there is. At what point in my 5 – 10 minutes do I suggest a larger context? How much control do I try to plan for before the event?
This idea of control is a very interesting part of my life as an artist. I always tell my sculpture students that what they are doing in class is learning to control their materials. They are developing their ideas also but what practice with materials gives them is the ability to control their materials so that they will express what they want them to express. In the beginning, whether it is clay, stone, metal or fiber, the materials and the artist’s skill level are in control of the experience. As the artist gets more and more comfortable with her materials, her ideas are able to take control of the creating process.
What if I consider the Speakers’ Corner a sculptural material? This will be my first experience using this material; I certainly don’t feel in control. Can I use this out of control feeling to my advantage? What would be a “naive” but effective approach to the material? My mom always says to “go back to what works for you.” What works for me? Usually I worry quite a bit. I over-think things, prepare and then try to back away enough to make it seem simple. I am always searching for the simple gesture.
I am not sure I am really made for blogging. It feels a bit too one-sided still and not much like a relationship. I also don’t like to write just to write. I would say that I am just not cut out for writing a blog except that I am really curious about its potential for creating a different type of artistic engagement. If most of what I create takes a long time and is very site specific, most people will not be able to see or experience it directly. This doesn’t bother me but it does make the documentation of the work very important. How can we talk about NODhouse or NODtoBristol and the issues around them if I can’t share them? My most direct relationships are with people with whom I am sharing the experience of creating the work. However, it is my hope that each engagement focuses on issues that are universal and that those issues could form a different type of engagement with people outside the immediate environs of each work. Maintaining a blog seems to be a reasonable way to create this engagement.
From what I can tell, the most often expressed advice for new bloggers is to write often or at least to post in a rhythm to create a relationship with your readers. (Of course, I think fairly close to that is the advice not to blog about blogging xx) If not every day or every week, at least consistent with my own pattern. I have not been doing this; I have let our relationship go and I am sorry.
We are creating something here. I will write more regularly. I will write every ten days. You can count on it.
I had a lovely discussion with Colin Brown from Bristol’s Poetry Can yesterday. I had contacted him because I am interested in collaborating with a poet here in Bristol and wanted direction on how best to do that. Our conversation flowed smoothly between issues of visual artists’ verbal communication, the function of an artist, race and “otherness” in the UK, Bristol’s history (or lack of history) dealing with issues of diversity, a poet’s relationship to visual art, paths to collaboration and time as artist material. The ease of the conversation was a testament to Colin’s “getting it” and an affirmation, for me, of the depth of the idea.
We spoke a lot about the nature of collaboration and how it might specifically work in this project. Colin’s questions helped me be more specific about what I was envisioning while also emphasizing my belief that a true collaboration necessitates it being defined by all participants. I may know what I think will work best in this project but that may or may not be the same thing that the poet thinks will work best. Before we get to creating the work, we will need to create the beginning of the collaboration.
Each piece I do has a sculptor’s emphasis on material. I have developed a very broad understanding of material to include not only physical materials such as concrete,textile, wood and clay but conceptual materials such as negotiation, time, place and movement as well. I view the responses I am getting to the “what is the function of the artist?” question as material. Will a poet find being given these words as raw material for his or her own work an interesting engagement? Will his or her involvement end there or will s/he want to take part in gathering responses? Does it make more sense to the poet to take these words and go off to the studio and write in isolation? Will s/he eventually want to have input into the visual part of the project or be relieved that I am making all those decisions? Is the collaboration better served by having more than one poet voice?
Both Colin and I agreed it was definitely time for me to meet some poets.
After talking about the function of an artist, a friend sent me a link to a document published by the Arts Council England. She wanted to draw my attention to the following quote taken from the document, “When the arts achieve excellence they offer something to each individual that is hard to describe. This might be a challenge, conflict, insight, understanding, amusement, an intellectual or an emotional connection. It’s unique for each person.” This is a great quote and most notable for its inclusion in the document published to explain the purpose of the Arts Council. It got me thinking about what the equivalent document for the National Endowment for the Arts would say, so I took a look.
I found a published piece from 2007, relatively the same period as the Arts Council document. The tone of the NEA’s document is different. Its focus is on describing the means by which arts are funded in the United States whereas the focus of the Arts Council’s document is on describing the role of art in society. These differing emphases are best conveyed through the specific words used in the documents.
I searched for specific words and recorded their number of appearances in each document in a chart. I searched for words I felt were most indicative of a particular focus in the writing. What I found to be most interesting was the number of times courage (10 times in UK document, 0 times in US document), confidence (5 times in UK document, 0 times in US document), revenue (0 times in UK document, 13 times in US document), independent (2 times in UK document, 10 times in US document) and engage (10 times in UK document, 1 time in US document) appeared. I think these differences reflect a difference in a societal attitude towards art and artists in both countries. I have felt a difference since arriving here. I am still working on understanding it and trying very hard to truly hear it. I think our words are chosen (especially in our writing) very specifically to express what we think is true. The way the arts are written about here is different than the way they are written about in the US. I believe this difference is internalized in artists and influences our paths.
My favorite quote from the Arts Council document is this: “the heart of what Arts Council England is for…… [is]: ‘to give courage, confidence and opportunity’ to artists and their audiences.” I love the idea of an arts agency seeing as their mission to give courage, confidence and opportunity to artists and their audiences. With this as a societal goal, the attitude of the artist to her work has to be more healthy. An emphasis on finding funding is competitive whereas an emphasis on confidence and courage is collaborative. Although in reality there is competition for funding here (made even worse by the current cuts to funding), the stated purpose of the arts council is to benefit the growth of the artist. There is value in “just” being an artist and this value is expressed by the government. That value has to be felt by the artist.