Access All Areas: Conversations on Engaged Arts
To engage has several meanings according to several free, online dictionaries: to be employed or busy; committed to a cause; pledged to be married, involved in conflict or battle an architectural term, attached or partly embedded into, as well as in reference to mechanics i.e. interlocking gears.
It strikes me that all of these definitions, although apparently isolate from each other, are all part of the definition of socially engaged arts. Community arts is a process that is inherently consuming and busy. Many artists come to this practice out of a commitment to ideas of equality and the drive to facilitate expression and positively impact communities. Another feature of engaged art is that it is most often project-driven. When a project is active we are, as artists, in many ways married to it, and married to the community we are working with; at least for a period of time we are pledged to a particular group of people who we may encounter in conflictual relationships as well. Conflict is often a part of engaged arts, but conflict, I would argue, is an essential part of learning to work together and should be viewed as a holistic part of engaged arts practice. And in reference to the mechanical and architectural meanings of the term, communities, relationships, artistic inspiration and action can metaphorically engage a community into action. Celebration and struggle create support systems and embed new relationships and opportunities into a community.
The Live In Public: The Art of Engagement conference hosted by grunt gallery in October of 2008 was an inventory of practice and definitions of those practices as they related to socially engaged art. This publication is a continuation of those conversations begun at the conference. Exploring the Roles, Risks, Breakthroughs and Expectations of the work of artists in communities through four panels over four days with four artists per panel and over 150 participating artists engaged in conversation and critique, the conference sought to bring artist practitioners together to carve out divergent meanings from our diverse work.
Cheryl L'Hirondelle, multimedia artist and participant in the Roles panel moderated by jil p. weaving, provided a metaphor for some of the encounters and context of socially engaged arts. She related a story of realizing how distinctly birds sing very early in the morning, when they can be heard first practicing their song. Diane Roberts, artistic director of urban ink productions, in responding to Cheryl's panel presentation remarked that this story was the equivalent of "the colonial narrative of who can sing, who can talk." Powerful questions, points of criticism, ethics and morals are engaged when we talk about how we work with communities, where we come from in entering a relationship with a community, who has the power and privilege in these relationships, and how we mitigate or try to alter the social systems that are constructed within communities and systemically in our society.
Perhaps it is as simple as practicing like the birds before dawn. At this conference, we practiced; in our work and artistic fields we practice from project to project, learning from mistakes and trying new approaches so that we may create a symphony of songs the next new day. It is the role of the artist in engaged arts practice to be a part of the process, as the bird's song is a part of the dawn. Melanie Fernandez, director for Ontario's Harbourfront Centre, said in her presentation, "The artist - the bridge - and the community are engaged in a symbiotic relationship with skills, ideas, processes, hopes and dreams [that] flow between and around all parties. It's a co-dependency, an ecology, an organism."
Another panelist, Simon M. Levin of Collective Echoes, relates, "Engagement is ultimately where the good work is done, where the work that is important and that is messy and that is not always successful [is done]." This idea that we are practicing means that we make mistakes, but I am not suggesting that we take a laissez faire attitude towards our roles as artists in public spheres. I am suggesting, as Simon posited, that the messy work, the uncomfortable spaces and potential conflict are as much a part of our work as the beautiful songs we create.
Diane Roberts in responding to the Roles panel says, "I will be the bridge, I will enter the messy gaps, I will listen. There are stories under skin, mingled in blood, buried in bones and breath and these stories will lead us home." It is this commitment that artists carry with them when they are working in community arts: a commitment to try, to learn and to practice.
"Wake up, the light is here, the birds are already singing and our land is looking good." (Translation of a Cree Standard song sung by Cheryl L'Hirondelle, Roles panelist.) This process of practicing, of committing to the possibility of mistake and failure, has some inherent risks for an artist. Exploring risk as a part of our practice as engaged artists was the focus of another panel during the conference. In the discussion following the Risks panel, moderated by Vanessa Richards, Pam Hall, interdisciplinary East Coast artist, said, "Our obligation as artists is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable."
The idea that the artist has an obligation to deal with social issues or to attempt to create a 'better world' through her/his practice or expression was debated in different forms throughout the conference and again in this publication. From examples of artists who are deeply connected, to using expression as activism, to artists who reject the notion that we have any more responsibility than other professionals, the conference and the conversations explored what we encounter as risks when we engage ourselves – our own ethics and ideals – as well as the public in our work. Sara Kendall, spoken word artist and youth worker panelist for the Risks panel, quoted Anaïs Nin: "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."
We are reminded that risk is many things, from the emotional to the spiritual to real physical risk. Artists embody these types of risks when they venture out of self-reflective practice to interact and collaborate with the public. Why we take these risks has many motivations and reasons, but as Emma Kivisild, respondent to the Risks panel, put it, "Art is about desire. And desire is always dragging risk along behind it."
What we desire as artists, participants or funders forms our expectations. Perhaps one of the most intimidating parts of a community arts process is what everyone is expecting of the artist, and an important part of the ethics of our practice is what artists themselves expect of the group(s) they are working with. Maria Hupfield, respondent for the Expectations panel, notes, " Devora Neumark raised the question of personal investment in projects as an 'all good intentions do not lead to good engagement,' warning of the dangers of 'trying to rescue instead of involving' participants. The ethics of engagement are always a flash point, with multiple viewpoints that lead us to look ever deeper into our social systems.
This is particularly true in the case of working outside our own cultural communities or with marginalized populations. A number of Aboriginal artists working in communities talk about the histories of outsiders with paternalistic and racist attitudes coming into Aboriginal communities to "save" them, and the need to break down the colonial story that shapes a lot of engagement in these communities. In the breakout groups, during the open discussion at the conference, Deborah Barndt, author of Wildfire: Art as Activism, coined a term that needs critical attention in our field – 'white lady syndrome'. As engaged artists, part of our role and the risk we take is to break down those attitudes and to always be striving for authentic engagement and collaboration, as opposed to following paternalistic models of the artist as 'savior'.
The conference produced no definitive answers on how to break down power structures and challenge systemic oppression within our work, but we started conversations about how we as artists navigate the roles, risks, expectations and inevitably the breakthroughs that occur in our practice. Amir Ali Alibhai, respondent for the conference panel on Breakthroughs, says, "What constitutes a breakthrough in community-based arts practice? As the panelists presented their work, it came to me as the process of opening up new space or creating new ways of being together. The artist is a risk taker, confronting fear and complacency and potentially catalyzing social change through changing the minds of a few people at a time. Art happens in the real world, it demands real action; it is risky."
The conference strived to be this new space, where we as a group of artists working in the realm of social engagement could come together to talk to each other, learn from one another and challenge each other to take our work further. The breakthroughs along the way can be felt on a personal level by artist or participant or the breakthrough can create ripples of change within a community. These changes depend on the risks taken, the roles played, and the expectations we carry with us in approaching the work. Amir, in responding to the panel, summarizes, "What is 'reproducible' are values or even ethics of respect, of collaboration, of re-cognizing expertise, contexts, trust and diversity, and of artists facilitating engagement in self-defining communities."
I think a lot of our discomfort with the term "community" has to do with who defines what community is, who belongs, and how that community fits in with other class structures, and I think Amir posed an important breakthrough in our use of that term. That a community is self-defined doesn't necessarily mean it exists in one geographic area based on civic divisions; it is not necessarily based on culture, race, or economics, yet all these things are features of all communities. It is how the people who are a part of that community define themselves. Our work as artists in these communities needs to start with how the community itself perceives the risks, roles, breakthroughs and expectations of working with artists.
However we define our practice, we are reminded that what grounds us, what weaves together our practice, is people themselves – how we come together, struggle, celebrate, survive and thrive. We are a part of this process. As much as we try to facilitate it, we are not separate from the communities we work with, and we leave pieces of ourselves within communities and we take pieces of communities with us, and that exchange mitigates our ethics, our approach and our success within these communities.
So, after four days, four panels, multi-layered conversations, conflicts and congratulations, the conference was over. Our chance to engage with each other over this brief period was closed. Did we get anywhere? I am not sure that I approach conferences with an expectation that I will arrive at some other point in my understanding or approach after its conclusion. I feel like the things that were stirred up continue to float around in my head, touching down in different contexts and gaining new insight. I don't think the conference was perfect, but I do know that fragments and ideas presented there are still with me, and they will continue to influence my work in the next few years as I understand new things about the spaces we opened, the conversations we started and the ones we didn't, and the spaces we still struggle to open and that drive us to continue our work.
My deepest re-cognition during this conference was the idea that community is not a static entity objectively existing "out there." It is, rather, a phenomenon, existing in a specific site and often summoned into being at the appropriate moment.
Amir Ali Alibhai