Spaced

Sun, 02/06/2013 - 16:45 -- damien
Art out of place

'Spaced: Art Out of Place’ (‘Spaced’), billed as ‘IASKA’s inaugural biennial event of socially-engaged art’, entered general public visibility as an exhibition and symposium at Fremantle Art Centre, Western Australia (WA), in February 2012. ‘Spaced’ included international artists and transnational interactions, but its predominant focus was as a platform for encounters between specific geographical communities and artists, rather than the conventional biennial public event. ‘Spaced’ raised questions about who socially-engaged art is for, the value of developing models of practice, the role and significance of exhibitions and discursive events, and the difficulties of researching new forms of process-based art.

‘Spaced’ is the sequel to the activities of International Art Space Kellerberrin Australia (IASKA) that brought artists to the small town of Kellerberrin, two hundred and ten kilometres east of Perth.(1) For a decade IASKA supported ‘context-specific’ projects and residencies in which artists engaged with aspects of the local situation, people, place and local consciousness. Outcomes were directed at the Kellerberrin population, who were also involved in education and mentoring programs. The Kellerberrin initiative reflected the shift beyond static and place-based public art that at the time was still infrequent in Australia. It preceded the arguments, made by Miwon Kwon, for more relational specificity and criticality in site-specific art to avoid practice being co-opted by institutional and market forces.(2)

‘Spaced: Art Out of Place’ reintroduced the importance of place after its supersession by other subjects of critical studies in the 1990s. It expanded the Kellerberrin model to support artists in situation-specific art projects across Western Australia, often in very remote sites.(3) IASKA’s negotiations resulted in sixteen communities hosting twenty-one artists for two-three month residencies during 2009–2011. The brief to artists was broad: be inclusive of art, design and science; intervene in everyday life at the site with a creative response with participants; connect the global and local; and create a work that could be exhibited to audiences beyond the project site. In the process, it assisted in the professionalisation and legitimation of socially-engaged art in Australia, without a stated intention to influence cultural or arts funding policy.

Socially-engaged art may involve multiple interactions and relations with the non-gallery going public in either the development of a project or the work itself. Art historian and curator Christian Kravagna outlined a useful set of possible models of interaction in the late 1990s: working with others, interactive activities, participatory practice, and collective action.(4) The ‘Spaced’ brief gave latitude for many different performances of social interactions and/or investigations of cultural, economic, ecological, and spatial aspects of the social with host populations. The necessity of a tangible or exhibitable outcome provided both promotion and a mode of evaluation of the art performance.

The ‘Spaced’ exhibition revealed the individuality of the artists’ responses to specific contexts. Sohan Ariel Hayes joined with Michael Woodley from the Juluwarlu Aboriginal Corporation and a Yindjibarndi ceremonial leader, across their shared interests in moving image, archiving and sustaining culture, to conceive and create a filmic work for the residents of Roebourne, a town currently facing loss of Native Title land to mining interests. Birndi Wirndi – Worlds Apart, a film that took as its subject the Indigenous community, its history and the culture around the Victoria Hotel that they had closed in 2003, was facilitated by community cooperation. It was projected on the outside walls of the hotel in an event Hayes called an attempt to offer the Indigenous community some ‘ritualistic healing’.(5)

With works ranging from Birndi Wirndi – Worlds Apart to collaborative projects employing abandoned supermarket trolleys by Jakarta artist Ritchie Ned Hansel (Abandoned Trolley Project), ‘Spaced’ reinforced the breadth of artists’ responses to social engagement, and the necessity for evidence of the particularities of process if the generation of critical models or pedagogy is intended. Conceptually, Birndi Wirndi – Worlds Apart has resonances with forms of ‘new genre public art’, which artist Suzanne Lacy has defined as eliciting participation from diverse constituencies other than museum audiences, and involving creative participation while being based in social issues engaged with people’s lives.(6) Lacy’s performative work proposed the realisation of a sense of shared community that is beyond the remit of ‘Spaced’ but that is suggested by Hayes’s observation of the Roebourne population coming together over the projection.

The dispersed towns that comprised the participant populations of ‘Spaced’ are a point of differentiation. IASKA gained the interest of a range of generous ‘community partners’, including city councils and shires, community arts officers, regional art galleries or art centres, local societies and committees, representatives of Indigenous and other groups and individuals, who offered accommodation, contacts and other facilitation to the resident artists. Director Marco Marcon conceived of the communities as being a kind of ‘social studio’ for art development, after the ideas of Joseph Beuys. Marcon undertook the role of manager, fundraiser and spokesperson, but disavowed any curatorial intervention in the projects.(7) The artists and interdisciplinary practitioners consulted, negotiated and worked with their interlocutors without the critical context of other artists or curators.

The ‘Spaced’ framework also did not require projects to be either socially useful nor to establish agency in any political form, despite the theorising of its potential to comprise the kinds of critical artistic practices that offer transformative actions.(8) In its deliberative or agonistic relations art is theorised variously by Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and others as offering symbols of radical alternatives to the current neoliberal economic system. Jacques Rancière has optimistically instrumentalised socially-engaged art to a political role, proclaiming: ‘we continue to believe that art has to leave the art world to be effective in “real life”; we continue to try to overturn the logic of the theater by making the spectator active, by turning the art exhibition into a place of political activism or by sending artists into streets of derelict suburbs to invent new modes of social relations.’(9) A number of the ‘Spaced’ projects, mainly by international artists, were issue-focused interventions organised by collective action or critical of neoliberal structures. M12 Collective (Richard Saxton, Kirsten Stoltz and David Wyrick), experienced in working in country communities and interested in the rural ‘as a way of thinking’, aligned with a group of citizens in Denmark, Western Australia with a shared interest in preserving the wetland environment. Their ‘collective action’ resulted in a permanent bird hide and social/educational space built from recycled materials. Dutch artists Wouter Osterholt and Elke Uitentuis engaged with the potential for a more cosmopolitan social sphere by confronting the cultural, economic and political dilemmas underlying Western Australia’s live sheep trade to the Middle East. West and East were connected in the ritual slaughter of an Australian sheep in Bahrain, as the animal lay on a traditional Islamic prayer rug the artists had woven in Lake Grace, WA from local wool. They attempted to provide a platform in ‘Spaced’ for the creation of an informed and ethical worldview by conveying some of the complexities and sensitivities of the meeting of tradition and global commerce. However, an opportunity to debate this and other issues, also raised by the work of French collective Art Orienté Objet, (Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin, who were invited by SymbioticA to respond to Lake Clifton, the home of living thrombolites), were lost when the two projects were not exhibited in the host communities.(10)

Most artists challenged or enlarged a sense of social being. Sonia Leber and David Chesworth’s cinematic 2-screen video The Way You Move Me gave viewers an opportunity to examine relations between animals and their owners, and the intuitive and power relations within real and imaginary connections between species.

In the short residency timeframe, artists could not be expected to develop the dialogic relations advocated by Grant Kester. Kester advocates duration, ethical interactions and empathetic insight for artists working with diverse communities as the means of generating collaborative outcomes.(11) Kester’s dialogic relations are proposed as a platform for communicative dialogue with a cumulative effect, opening a space within contemporary culture for critical analyses. Despite the limited time, there was evidence the ‘Spaced’ residences generated dialogic interactions. Kate McMillan acknowledged the depth of personal connections she established with different inhabitants of Leonora. Having been involved in workshops at the Youth Centre, Refugee Detention Centre and in cultural projects with the local Indigenous community and other residents, it was both the interactions, and their challenges, that informed McMillan’s intention to continue to engage with Leonora residents.

With its event-like nature, social art enacted in public has the potential to overcome the ‘exhibitionary complex’, Tony Bennett’s term for the modernist legacy of institutional adherence to normative interests and traditional stakeholders, despite changes made to embrace diverse cultures, multiple publics and new political and economic interests since the 1980s.(12) Socially-engaged art has the potential to diminish institutional authority in a way that resembles Eilean Hooper-Greenhill’s idea of the ‘post-museum’, that operates event-type programs, beyond the static, institutional site, to address local and micro issues and reach new publics.(13) Social programming and community-curated projects problematise the art museum by bringing it closer to the identity of a cultural centre. A significant recent socially-engaged project emerging from an Australian institution was ‘C3West’ by Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (2006–2010).(14) Organised independently, ‘Spaced’ offers a different example, one of the few investigations on any scale to have taken place in this region in recent years, alongside ‘C3West’, and ‘One Day Sculpture’ in New Zealand (2008–2009).(15)

The venue of the ‘Spaced’ final exhibition, Fremantle Art Centre, is appropriately an organisation that constantly blurs the boundaries of gallery, cultural centre and public space.(16) The works presented creative evidence of the residencies but did not communicate the nature of relations occurring in their genesis. Nor did they attempt to engage viewers in the gallery in interactions or communicative sociality in the mode of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics.(17) The exhibition included documentary footage and interviews with artists, but these could not offer a fulsome sense of the presumably complex processes for both communities and artists. The highly finished exhibition became the ‘contemplative work’ that socially-engaged art generally desires to contest.

Works were directed toward larger social concerns and multiple viewing publics. For example, non-residents could easily remain oblivious to the contentious issue of industrialisation that stimulated Mimi Tong’s exquisite drawing of the Albany foreshore, View of Albany from Princess Royal Harbour, Western Australia c. December 2009. Nigel Helyer’s CrayVox, an almost life-sized model of a cray fishing boat with audio component, suggested the impossibility of representing the experience of living on the Abrolhos Islands with cray fishermen, but nevertheless had met the satisfaction of local viewers.

‘Spaced’ confirmed how socially-engaged art privileges participants and a local audience, including a public who could come across art ‘in the wrong place’ (for example, artworks in the natural environment of Mukinbudin by Julia Davis, or Roderick Sprigg’s performative walks with a redesigned food cart housing wayang kulit-style animated videos on the streets in Jakarta). The final works had previously been seen in diverse but relevant local situations, including: a library (Mimi Tong), outdoor projections on a disused hotel (Sohan Ariel Hayes and Michael Woodley), shops and streets (Sojourn in Espérance Bay by Makeshift’s Tessa Zettel and Karl Khoe, in the Esperance Museum Village, and Takahiko Suzuki’s Global Store Project in Kellerberrin) and parks (Jakub Szczęsny and Kaja Paweek’s Narrogin Banksia Tower).

A more effective vehicle for communication of processes and relations were the artists’ blogs, also useful in initiating links with residents. They gave the reader an appreciation of the points of interest and emerging networks, and dilemmas, tensions and inoperative circumstances for artists as they arose. Through this forum, for example, readers obtained a sense of why Sonia Leber and David Chesworth changed the subject of their project.(18) Web 2.0 allows multiple expressions of the image of community even if necessarily self-censored in the process.

The ‘Spaced’ symposium, with presentations by artists and community representatives, established that artist–participant relations were unforced, negotiated, and not always easy, avoiding the concern for ‘prescribed commonality’ that haunts socially-engaged art.(19) A number of community partners had maintained their commitments despite experiencing unease with the art, reinforcing the role of the trust relationships. Both artists and supporters felt the difference of the other in a host and guest situation, and the difficulty of connecting. Marcon’s curatorial ambivalence gave authority to communities and disempowered some artists, who found their pre-defined geographical and interest communities had preconceived ideas of what could be contributed.(20)

Community is always imagined, as Sonia Leber noted, and assumptions of unity or harmony in rural or fringe populations were also dispelled for artists. Architect/designer Jakub Szczęsny’s proposal for the large scale Narrogin Banksia Tower gathered supporters in addressing the identity, diminishing population and economics of a discontented town with a lost railway industry. The work remained contentious for other residents, and local council investigations into the artist’s proposition still continued ten months later. Bennett Miller purposefully contrasted the characteristics of dog breeders, owners and trainers in the greyhound racing community and the machinations of the racing and betting industry with the very different nature of the animals in his project based in Northam/Bakers Hill.

The symposium keynote paper by David Cross, co-curator of ‘One Day Sculpture’, addressed the lack of communication of the processes or minutiae of social art.(21) It was the conversation and debate, the websites and publications, surrounding ‘Spaced’ that revealed the ‘relational antagonism’ defined by Claire Bishop as ‘exposing that which is repressed’ in the creation of politically effective social relations within an art project.(22) Artists and participants, rather than audiences of artwork, experienced the discomfort arising from the counter-hegemonic interventions of social art, that Bishop has proposed can theoretically contribute toward the generation of a radical participatory democracy. The suggestion by artists that future feedback sessions be conducted in situ with participants would enhance a discourse on agency within creative relations and assist in establishing cultural, intersubjective and organisational learning within and from the project. ‘Spaced’ raised the many related issues regarding socially-engaged art: questions about the value of preparation, research and evaluation, effect of mediation and position of creative labour, and the lack of nuanced discourse around participation, experience, reception and appraisal. ‘Spaced’ offered a fresh approach to situated art making and suggests a new, community-supported methodology. Its practice-based research failed to effect change in the prevailing exhibition paradigm, but larger industry effects may appear over time, assisted by the catalogue.(23) Future instalments are opportunities to research these questions further within an iterative process of creativity, while avoiding the restrictions that arise with defining ‘best-practice’. In the interests of establishing a pedagogy of socially-engaged art, ‘Spaced’ underlined the importance of autonomy, diverse participants, networked communications and documentation, local feedback, and the distinction between fieldwork and exhibitionary content, in addition to the subjects of commerce, strategic alignment and creative capacity, and performance, narrative, publics, and time, which had been raised already by ‘C3West’ and ‘One Day Sculpture’. 

Jakub Szczesny (architect) and Kaja Pawelek (curator), Banksia Tower, Narrogin Railway Station, WA, 2011. Courtesy the artists. © The artists. 

Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, The Way You Move Me, 2011. Video still, two-channel video, 5:1 channel audio, 10:30min. Courtesy the artists and Fehily Contemporary, Melbourne. 

Mimi Tong, View of Albany from Princess Royal Harbour, Western Australia, c. December 2009. Photograph courtesy and © Bo Wong. 

Sohan Ariel Hayes and Michael Woodley, Birndi Wirndi – Worlds Apart 2, Roebourne, 2010. Courtesy Sohan Ariel Hayes. © Sohan Ariel Hayes. 

notes: 

1. Originally organised by Marco Marcon, artist Rodney Glick and two local wheat farmers in 1998.

2. Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another, Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2002.

3. Six projects were created by international artists and collectives and ten by Australian artists. Roderick Sprigg undertook the only off-shore project, an artists exchange with the Jakarta Biennial, Jakarta Arts Council and Jakarta Arts Institute that included Jakarta artist Ritchie Ned Hansel working in Fremantle.

4. Christian Kravagna, ‘Modelle partizipatorischer Praxis’ in Die Kunst des Öffentlichen, Marius Babias and Achim Könneke (eds.), Verlag der Kunst, Amsterdam and Dresden, 1998, pp.28–47.

5. Sohan Ariel Hayes at the ‘Spaced’ Symposium, February 2012. All artists comments are from the Symposium unless otherwise noted.

6. ‘New genre public art calls for an integrative critical language through which values, ethics and social responsibility can be discussed in terms of art.’ Suzanne Lacy, (ed.), Mapping the Terrain, New Genre Public Art, Washington Bay Press, Seattle, 1995.

7. Conversation with Marco Marcon, February 2012.

8. Grant Kester discusses the quality of usefulness in contemporary durational projects. Grant Kester, The One and The Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2011.

9. Jacques Rancière, ‘The Paradoxes of Political Art’, in Dissensus: on politics and aesthetics, Steven Corcoran (trans.), Continuum, 2010, London and New York, p.137.

10. Amongst the issues considered by Art Orienté Objet are that the thrombolites (some of the earliest oxygen-producing microorganisms on earth) at Lake Clifton are at risk of intentional or unintentional damage.

11. Grant Kester, Conversation Pieces, Community and Communication in Modern Art, University of California, London, 2004.

12. Tony Bennett, ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’, in Donald Preziosi and Claire Farago, Grasping the World, The Idea of the Museum, Ashgate, Aldershot, UK, 2004, pp.413–460. Originally published in New Formations, vol. 4 (Spring) 1988, pp.73–102.

13. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, Routledge, London and New York, 2000, pp.152-53.

14. ‘C3West’ was premised on artists exploring creative relations with commerce and communities as museum partners, that resulted in raising awareness of social issues, celebratory and discursive events and artistic output, aspects of which were subsequently exhibited. ‘C3West’ was a partnership between the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Panthers World of Entertainment, SITA Environmental Solutions, Veolia and the University of Western Sydney, Penrith Regional Gallery, Casula Powerhouse and Campbelltown Arts Centre.

15. ‘One Day Sculpture’ focused on the effect of setting durational boundaries for artists working in public space, commissioning 20 projects of 24 hours each that took place in different cities over the span of one year, without the imperative for participatory processes or subsequent exhibition. ‘One Day Sculpture’ was initiated by Litmus Research Initiative at Massey University, New Zealand and Situations at the University of West England.

16. Kylie Message, New Museums and the Making of Culture, Berg, Oxford and New York, 2006.

17. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods, Mathieu Copeland (trans.), Les presses du réel, Dijon, 2002.

18. See http://www.iaska.com.au/content/project/Moora%3A+Sonia+Leber+%26amp%3B+David+Chesworth/41/work_in_progress/

19. Maria Lind, ‘The Collaborative Turn’ in Brian Kuan Wood, (ed.) Selected Maria Lind Writing, Sternberg Press, Berlin and New York, 2010, p.187.

20. An example of expectations and power sensitivities was Nigel Helyer’s assumption that locals were disconcerted by seeing him undertake water quality tests, see http://www.iaska.com.au/content/project/Abrolhos+Islands%3A+Nigel+Helyer/43/work_in_progress/post/86/

21. Other guest speakers framed the project in local and international contexts, and included Ian Hunter, of Littoral (UK), provocatively establishing connections between ‘Spaced’ and the history of radical projects in rural UK locations, as well as the concept of a proposed cultural strategy for rural, sustainable communities in European Union agricultural policy.

22. Claire Bishop, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October, no. 110, Fall 2004, pp.51–79.

23. An alternative way to admit process into the exhibitionary complex was suggested by ‘Iteration: Again’ at CAST, Hobart in 2011, although this project differed in having artists present concurrently. The gallery space became a hub where artists and the public could congregate at the end of each day. Documentation and other materials were displayed, enabling a discursive situation and site for visitors to access ideas in process.

The exhibition ‘Spaced: Art Out of Place’ was shown at Fremantle Arts Centre, Fremantle, Western Australia, 4 February – 11 March 2012. It is also being exhibited at Plimsoll Gallery, University of Tasmania, Hobart, 30 August – 30 September 2012; Vancouver Arts Centre, Albany, WA, 23 February – 23 March 2013; Alcoa Mandurah Art Gallery, Mandurah, WA, 12 April – 5 May 2013; Geraldton Regional Art Gallery, Geraldton, WA, 24 May – 5 August 2013; Latrobe Regional Gallery, Morwell, Victoria, 1 February – 24 March 2014; Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery, Victoria, 5 April – 11 May 2014; Bunbury Regional Art Galleries, Bunbury, WA, 21 June – 17 August 2014; The Cannery Arts Centre, Esperance, WA, dates TBA 2014.

Zara Stanhope was a guest speaker hosted by IASKA at the ‘Spaced: Art Out of Place’ symposium, 4 – 5 February 2012.