HAVA Before the lockdown, Socially Engaged Practice was the big buzzword of the pre-Rona art landscape. Everyone was in to it. Artists were flocking to local town halls across the country. Arts Council applications have a section where you have to talk about the socially improving effects of your project in order to get funding.
MAZ Socially Engaged Practice can be described as an art form where the fundamental material is the relationship between the artist and a community, the process of their relationship. A community can mean anything. Trans people. The people who live on an estate. A knitting group. Muscle gays. 3 people who fell down a well. 40-50 feral hogs. The idea is that the process of relationship building will reveal important truths and needs kept unwittingly secret by the voiceless underclass that the artist chooses to work with. The artist, heroically, gives voice to these people. Although there are sometimes artworks made as a result of the process of interaction, usually public work like sculpture or a wallpainting or a play, oftentimes the process of working together, when shown in a coherent and understandable manner in a gallery or maybe even a trendy warehouse, is the artwork itself.
HAVA But we should probably be asking ourselves some questions. Like, why do we need an artist to give people voices, don't they have them already? Who is the artist showing the process to, in coherent and understandable manner? What does coherent and understandable mean? For what purpose? And what is the dynamic of power between the artist and the community they are working in?
THE COLONIAL LOGIC OF ANTHROPOLOGY
"‘Research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary." -Linda Tuhiwai Smith
MAZ The Marxist anthropologist Michael Taussig describes the anthropological findings of colonists, transmitted back to the colonial metropole through pictures, descriptions, field recordings, as a form of cannibalism. The captured reality has now become the coloniser's object, which the coloniser owns. It is displayed, it is known. The colonist cannibalises the soul of the colonised by capturing their reality through methodological research, which is necessarily violent because it is forcing the colonised into the violent world of the coloniser. This colonial act, Taussig reminds us, is something which is not historical but which is constantly happening again and again.
HAVA Edward Said, who influenced Taussig's ideas, describes the colonial encounter as a separation of the world into an Us and a Them. The world of the Us is defined by the boundaries of the Them, the borders of which can be seen through the Us's extensive research and statements about the Them. These statements, said over and over, create a power dynamic between the Us and the Them, a reality. In creating an Us and a Them, and constantly re-inscribing it, a whole new world is created. The Us becomes and expert in the Them, who aren't necessarily bad or violent just different and a bit strange and maybe even something to be pitied. The Us writes about the Them, makes nice documentaries and paintings and novels about the Them. The Them is mute. The Us speaks, ventriloquist-like, through the Them. The Them internalises what the Us has taught. The Them has become powerless, at least for as long as this relationship holds, which for the Us is hoped to be forever. Neither the Us or the Them can return back to the world before this split occurred.
MAZ We've been talking about colonialism, but let's go back to art. (oh...right) It's easy to say that these two things are not at all connected, that the process of colonisation is not the same as making an artwork. But here we are describing a logic, a logic which is endemic in our society. Colonial logic is everywhere, it's deep in our daily lives. The way we talk to people, how we think, how we view ourselves. Because it's so embedded it's hard to see, but if we name it we can glimpse its contours. Is placing a short film, made after three months on an estate by a white, middle-class artist directing working-class people of colour, in a gallery not also serving up another experience to be cannibalised, like the ancestors of the gallery-goers did two, three, four hundred years ago? Is this not an act of colonisation?
HAVA Taussig says that all interactions, even cannibalism and especially colonialism, are a thing which affects both parties. The coloniser colonises, and is changed by that event. The colonised is colonised and is changed too. The artist makes an artwork alongside others. Yet the power dynamic remains. In fact, the power dynamic is created during this unequal exchange. What is the power dynamic embedded in of a piece of socially engaged art? Is the artist doing research, with all that that entails? And when you make a piece of socially engaged art, are you subverting the potential of rebellion, consciousness-raising, political activity, into an artwork? Have you invented a voice of the people for people who definitely had voices before you showed up? Are you cataloguing, categorising? Defining an Us and a Them?
MAZ It might be tempting to dismiss all this murky stuff by saying - well then, we shall just get ourselves a self-identified working class artist of colour to do the same thing! We've fixed it! Not only have we fixed the awkward disconnect between maker and subject, we've shown how far the art world has come, we've proven that the meritocracy is real, and that if another working class artist of colour can't make a good piece of socially engaged practise - well maybe they're just not a good artist.
HAVA This avoids specificity, and flattens out difference, which is often another implicit aim of socially engaged art. It ignores that the stages a working class person of colour goes through in order to get to the stage where they can make a successful ACE application systematically strips them of everything that could relate them to the people they then are supposed to make an artwork with. The art industry necessarily removes people from their community, so that they can become an individual to be planted back in to the community as a spy.
MAZ I am the only person that I know from my road, from my primary school, from my secondary school to study 'Fine Art', let alone at a prestigious London Art School. To assume that this is because I am better than anyone else from my community is dangerous, but this is a type of meritocracy that often goes unchecked. The stripping back of layers of opportunity before one even gets through the door of an elite institution becomes forgotten quickly as the necessarily communal identity of 'working class' becomes something to add to your artist bio, to make you stand out from the posh people in your class, to link up with other 'working class artists' invariably those who went to art school and are in art scenes, whose main complaint is not being successful enough, that art didn't provide the escape route from abjection that we were promised. What do we do? Do we go back to our estate, where perhaps we were referred to as a 'ponce', maybe rightly so, and get funding to talk to people we were desperate to get away from? I am not the community, yet when art projects come to my hometown and want untouched, authentic spokespeople for the community, sometimes I'm who they end up speaking to. I went to a talk about the local art community. It was me and 15 older locals, many of whom run a small art gallery in the upper levels of the shopping centre, which mainly shows paintings. The paid facilitator raised some questions about who gets to be called an artist, imposter syndrome, and how different kinds of art can be recognised. One older lady said that all kinds of art happens at her local church, at the community centres, and why does it need to be brought out of its context and shown anywhere else or be compared to the standards of London centric contemporary art scenes? Why indeed. At the end, the facilitator came up to me and asked me to come along to one of the sessions in a different, more middle class area of Essex, promising that this one would be better.
HAVA It can tempting in the face of this double consciousness, to double down on one's identity. But this is disingenuous to the varied experiences of the demographic you might find yourself in. Edward Said was Palestinian, and he was also upper class, privately educated and his father was an American citizen. His work benefits from an understanding of the contradictions of his existence, and in turn the contradictions of the system that placed him there. If we are generous and the goal of socially engaged practise is for a community to have a nice time, learn something new, get to know each-other and make something interesting, then what is the role of the artist? The artist becomes administrator, the artist's practise becomes funding applications. If the community is the one making the art, then why can't the community get the funding? The role of the artist is enshrined as a separate entity to the community. The artist becomes the go-between of the local authority, the arts council and the community. The artist can execute the work and leave in a cloud of dust, on to the next town like a hired gun.
MAZ This transient life is not much fun for the artist. People don't generally get in to art so they can singlehandedly conjure a community in a town they've never been to. It's good to break down the solitary, singular genius notion of the artist, but socially engaged practise has failed to do this, and has instead added the required skill of social worker, politician, and seductress to the role. There are many people I know who are great at organising, chatting to people and just generally bringing good vibes to the table. None of these people are artists, none of them have much luck with an arts council application. To succeed in socially engaged practise, the ability to communicate with the funding body, and the broader art world is much more important than the ability to communicate with the community. I mean, who's going to listen to them, anyway?
HAVA Being part of a community - that is, being a member of a marginalised group, being working class and necessarily living in some degree of communality even if it begins and ends with chatting to people at the bus stop - is a very nice way to live, it's something that requires spare time and solidarity. Community has been systematically destroyed in England, from the closing down of the mines to the way that young black men in cities are targeted by police, and migrant communities who live in fear of ICE vans. Why then, at the same time that communities are constantly under attack, is community such a buzz word in a thoroughly capitalistic art world?
"Neoliberal rationality disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities - even when money is not at issue - and configures human beings exhaustively as market actors, always, only, and everywhere." - Wendy Brown
HAVA Everything can be a market. In fact, neoliberalism says everything IS a market, and we are just market actors. If things don't think they're a market yet, you need someone to convince those things that they certainly are markets and very nice ones too. One of the most important markets is the relationships between people, and a group of people is generally called a community. Luckily we've got some socially engaged practice for that. The artist is hired as a worker, converting the relationship between people into a sellable commodity. Before the artist entered into the relationships of the collection of people the artist is making the work with, those relationships were simply relationships, which is kind of scary because who knows what sort of things could arise out of that space like maybe a militant revolutionary group or an embroidering circle! The artist is tasked with the serious job of turning those relationships into a product, of breaking open a new market, of converting the field of relationships into something intelligible to capitalism and no longer mysterious and dangerous.
MAZ Artists are often blamed for gentrification, which is kind of unfair because they are only complicit players in a game controlled by property developers and speculators. But we can draw a parallel here to the way that artists (historically) lived in poorer, ethnically mixed areas because the rent was cheap. Historically, many of these people would be themselves marginalised (faggots). They'd make art, generate buzz, rich people would descend, the area would be admired for its idiosyncrasies but soon new white middle class implants would make noise complaints, feel uncomfortable in an asian supermarket or Caribbean cafe and require a kind of bland safe approximation of culture to displace them. This process has become quicker and more mechanical each time it happens, with local councils purposefully seeking out artists to live in their area, as both 'artist' and 'faggot' become more legitimate career choices, and certain 'artists' and 'faggots' find themselves among the second wave of white middle class adopters.
HAVA So it goes with artists tasked with breaking ground in a new City or Borough of Culture. They don't even necessarily have to do the hard work of living in a place for a certain amount of time. They can be shipped in with a budget, a litmus test to see if commuters might want to live in for example Margate or not. Sometimes it works (Walthamstowe), sometimes it doesn't (Hull). In his 2013 series of reith lectures broadcast on Radio 4, Grayson Perry said that property developers should pay artists to live in places, with the knowledge that the artists presence would add to the market value of housing in the area. Everyone cheered. Recently, arts organisations have teamed up with local authorities and housing associations to offer reduced rate housing to artists. It's easy to see this as a nice gesture, but it's even easier to see this as a way to get out of building council houses. If one is an artist, one can live for up to 2 years in a condemned council block in Thamesmeade for £1000 a month. One can live in an artists community. It's important that artists see themselves as a community of self contained small businesses, rather than as workers. Community as a word offers a sense of meaning, without being something useful like a union.
MAZ It's worth thinking about what the state of the state is like now. The NHS and social services have been gutted. Mental health services, childcare, green spaces and public spaces. No more council houses getting built. The waiting list for what's left are long and getting longer. It's very possible that people could get understandably angry. So who's going to do the palliative care needed to keep this necrotic system going, and do it for very cheap? Artists seem like a good bunch, because we've been taught that art is a calling.
HAVA "The notion that art and social justice are intertwined", says the writer Yasmin Nair, "has spread to all levels of the art and funding world, but it manifests itself most clearly in various “public art” projects that take upon themselves the responsibility to not only make art but also heal entire communities.". To riff (rip) off Kipling, it's the artist's burden. And isn't that the slight-of-hand that neoliberalism does? It's a parasite feeding off our emotions, our humanity, growing fat and making us feel guilty.
MAZ This feeling of 'guilt' that comes from doing something as masturbatory as art often drives the move to socially engaged practise. In 2017 I graduated and temporarily moved back home to my parents, and started planning a short film about a half demolished shopping centre nearby. I enlisted some friends to help, we used my camera and it became a satirical mockumentary with sci fi overtones. Then I saw that some of the empty shops had become community spaces used by charities. Oh no! My silly little vanity project felt facile in comparison. Halfway through, I got some funding and decided what I should really do is a workshop, like ones I had heard of in London. Surely I, a 21 year old art graduate had something useful to give back to *my* community. I went and chatted to the 2 charities, and they agreed to let me use their basement for filming. I made a small donation afterwards. I also put on a 'costume making workshop' with a couple of friends, which no one attended. Actually, to be fair, 5 older women came and got on with their own crocheting, side-eying my googly eye focused endeavours. It was a humbling and awakening experience. If you watch the film, there's not really any indication that one of the extras is a lady who runs the local charity, or that I made a small donation to her cause afterwards. The film itself would likely not be considered social practise, but it would have been easy to spin the workshop so it seemed like a success, and use that false clout to get my foot on the ladder. In an art world that has muddied ideas of 'skill', you can really do a workshop on anything.
HAVA If socially engaged art acts as a cheap social democratic style concession to the brutality of capital, if everything is really wrapped up so deep in capitalist rationality, what are we going to do?
WHAT DO WE DO
“We need to stop asking ourselves only: Are these projects going to change the world? Instead, we ought to ask: [Do] these projects...really advance an understanding of how we might dismantle fundamental forms of inequality? Perhaps more importantly: Do they need to?...a culture that so self-consciously and overtly assigns the role of social change to art is a culture that has exhausted its ability to effect truly radical and visionary social change.” - Yasmin Nair,
HAVA It's very possible and even probable that we have set up socially engaged art to fail in this video, that we have artificially set its limits. We are constrained by our own experiences, our life, our principles, our ideology. I'll be honest with you, I was a socially engaged artist for three years and I did ok for myself. I did socially engaged art in Folkestone, in Taipei, in London, got fancy talking gigs in different countries. And what did it achieve? Very little for me, because I'm not very good at organising and actually it turned out I was just trying really hard not to be trans. And what did my art do for the people I worked with? Very little, because what was I but a visitor at best, an invader at worst, foisting my art onto people without their consent and without compensation. Was I helping with people's housing needs? Combating the gentrification of the town, which was slowly but surely driving them out? Helping end decades of indigenous genocide from systemic state-endorsed capitalist terrorism?
MAZ What art has truly changed your life? Because art can do that, not to be corny. I can bet that it wasn't anything socially engaged. Was it music, or a film, or a picture or painting or play or performance? It's kind of patronising to imagine that the public can't understand art unless they are complicit in the making, unless they are pandered to. Anyone can and many do make things all the time: what they lack is the time and resources to do so. Socially engaged practise could offer this, but it's rarely able to because it's focused on outcome. All this really means is that there's no simple way to opt out of the dynamics of exploitation in the art industry, or of wider society. Anything which claims to have 'fixed' this should be looked at with a deep suspicion. By acknowledging one's role, you can start to work against it. But if we allow art to retain a mystique, we can't do that. Taking something apart doesn't spoil it, anymore than studying art means you can't enjoy it anymore. (But wait - art school made me hate art?)
HAVA The use value of social practise can easily misdirect ire. People in power can acknowledge that some art is masturbatory and useless and silly - but they will often hold up the naked performance art of a gay person as an example of this, rather than a painting in the national gallery or a contemporary sculpture. It can quickly become conservative. The art that is made, however bad or boring, is not really the problem here but the symptom. Art is not equipped to fix social problems. The creative sector is no better or worse than any other industry, and we should equally not expect it to give up without a fight. Most people in positions of power in art will not be willing to give up their jobs in order to tear down the system - equally you won't be able to get a paid job as a revolutionary. It's fine to compromise to get a paid role, it's also wonderful to make art! But let's not get it confused with doing The Work, which will not always be fun. Artists blundering in and thinking they know how to organise a general strike isn't necessarily helpful, but they have a huge role to play in making this possible. Art can help us imagine what could be, which can be difficult to make time for in organising meetings. It can provide a shared language and way of communication. Art's role could be
'to make the revolution irresistible' - Toni Cade Cambarayou
"Those who have different visions or hopes for the world, along with those who cannot buy and who survive from day to day (approximately 800 million) are backward relics from another age, or, when they resist, either peacefully or with arms, terrorists. They are feared as harbingers of death, carriers of disease or insurrection. When they have been downsized (one of the key words), the tyranny, in its naivety, assumes the world will be unified. It needs its fantasy of a happy ending. A fantasy which in reality will be its undoing. Every form of contestation against this tyranny is comprehensible. Dialogue with it, impossible. For us to live and die properly, things have to be named properly. Let us reclaim our words. This is written in the night. In war the dark is on nobody's side, in love the dark confirms that we are together." - John Berger, Written in the Night