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Monday, November 11, 2013

On socially engaged art and "It Matters How You Get Here" (Montréal, April 2013)

"There's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard." – Arundhati Roy 

“We can never really challenge any form of social organization without challenging all of that organization’s forms of language. [...] When freedom is practiced in a closed circle, it fades into a dream, becomes a mere image of itself.”  - Guy Debord On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unit of Time (1959)

“This is the kind of artwork that makes cynics roll their eyes, because they feel that it limits what is often described as “the autonomy of art.” Referencing the pioneering beliefs of skeptics such as Theodor Adorno, they often voice a concern that this kind of work is neither good politics nor good art. Such critiques should be expected, for socially engaged artwork certainly does defy one of art’s most longstanding principles: uselessness.” Nato Thompson “Socially Engaged Art is a Mess Worth Making”, catalogue essay in Spontaneous Interventions (2012)
“A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgment of it: there is no other.” – Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet
“My milk shake brings all the boys to the yard / And they’re like / “It’s better than yours,” / Damn right it’s better than yours / I can teach you, / But I have to charge” Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, “Milkshake” (2013)

Jessica MacCormack and Jordan Arseneault (author) - photo courtesy of David Ward (April 2013, Montréal)

Can it Always Be Like This?

By Jordan Arseneault

When Ramona Benveniste and Muriel Jaouich invited me to participate in the round table “Socially Engaged Art – What Role can It Serve, Who is it Really For?” with Lisa Ndejuru and Jessica MacCormack, I had to start by immediately considering the three questions that I think should ground socially engaged art, and that ground my practice:
  • Whom are we speaking with and who has allowed/invited me to speak?
  • Who are my audience and how much participation would they like or need?
  • What do I have to contribute and what can I learn?

Arriving at the CRCS St-Zotique space, it was a brilliant sunny day, perfect for experiencing Courtney Maze’s hyperbolic reverse tourism performance in Sir-Georges-Étiienne-Cartier Park, which some may have had enjoyed in lieu of the round table. Unlike some in-situ art projects, ARTX480 chose to occupy the pool house in a period during which it was not being used by the local community, which, however coincidental that may have been, had a significant impact on the ethics of “It Matters How You Get Here.” While the works installed interacted to varying degrees with the specifics of the place itself, the overall effect was one that is often attributed to social engaged practice, that of utopianism. The fleeting sense of “Why can’t it always be like this?” that one often feels when united with peers or collaborators around a common goal in a situation somehow out of “regular time” was a quality that I feel whenever I interact with thoughtful socially engaged work, and was very much felt that day. 

The opportunity to sit in a circle with the nearly thirty people who came to the round-table was imbued with this feeling as well. (Rearranging the chairs in the room from rows to a circle was the first thing I did when I arrived.) For many of the students in the class, the chance to collectively consider ideas and produce work that is informed by group dialogue is not something that is a given in the “real world” of solo shows and art careers and “trying to get by on your art.” The opportunity for community exists if created intentionally, but for many, may not be continued after graduation. If utopia is a “no-place” then I would propose that a lot of socially engaged art deals with being “u-pragma” or “not a thing”: attribution becomes slippery, and ideally, the need for it slips away. It does not mean that it cannot be imagined, experienced, paid for, or appropriated, but it is difficult for socially engaged art to be bought, sold, or owned, at least in the same way that other so-called Intellectual Property is. This is one of its many challenges and opportunities.

Beside me, Lisa Ndejuru spoke to the themes and complications of her practice, which is conversational, performative, and inspired by theatre of the oppressed techniques. Her playback theatre interventions involve discussions with participants on topics of war and genocide, notably the Rwandan Genocide, of which some of her family were survivors. Her presentation focused on crucial themes of vulnerability and risk, of which practitioners must be aware if they dare to directly address triggering themes with their participants.

Lisa Ndejuru: “I have been struggling for decades with what it means to be Rwandan-Canadianwhat Rwanda’s tortured narrative of colonialism, war, genocide, dislocation and poverty has meant and could mean for my family, my community, my country, my world. I have some ideas. But before I can ask others to risk moving toward the wellness I long for, I must grab the talking stick, step into the story circle and explore those risks myself.”

After our two presentations, I divided the participants into groups – in a somewhat brutally arbitrary way, I’m afraid – to discuss what socially engaged art could be, and how to avoid the pitfalls of didactic or “missionary-style” art, where the artist alights with knowledge or skills that they assume the participants either don’t have or would necessarily benefit from. We reconvened as a group 45 minutes later for an all-too-brief plenary to share the results of the discussions. The ensuing conversation explored some heavy issues that often plague makers and participants in projects that seek to be socially engaged:
  • How do we deal with a privilege differential between the creator and the participants, especially when the participants are from a community with a history of oppression and the instigator of the project is from a different one?
  • How do we listen and engage respectfully with communities when we do not share their histories and experiences?
  • If we choose to address issues of oppression – violence, exclusion, lack – in our work, are we prepared to deal with disagreement, discomfort, and criticism?

The situation you place yourself in when doing socially engaged art is a risky one. You may not be able to own or control the end result. It may be utopian. You may not make any money from it. But you can hope to be changed, if you allow yourself to be open to the truly considering your participants as artists, on their own terms, in places that are safe enough for vulnerability and risk to occur. When creating a work with people instead of for them, you open yourself to transformation and to the possibility of learning, of action, and of believing, for a moment, that it could always be like this. 

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