Conference Report

Civic Actions: Artists' Practices Beyond the Museum
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

The Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MCA’s) conference began with questions: ‘Does a socially engaged practice inhibit artistic excellence?’ ‘What is the curatorial role in front-end community consultation?’ ‘What is the role of artists in urban and social planning processes?’ The Civic Actions conference set out to explore the intersections of ‘art, urban planning, architecture, culture and the future of Sydney’. 

The bustle on Sydney’s Circular Quay spilled into the MCA’s theatre where Creative Time’s (New York) chief curator Nato Thompson launched Civic Actions with his lecture ‘Culture is the Language of the Commons’, which included many ideas taken from his new book, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century. Thompson brought an American perspective to this contemporary arts discourse. He spoke candidly about race and power, and how Creative Time addresses these issues with the artists they support. A few nodding heads from the audience indicated endorsement of his ideas, but it appeared to me that the Australian-centric audience did not engage as readily as other audiences I have observed. Do all political art discourses translate across borders? Socially-engaged art practices are highly geo-political in their origins, attempting to engage local issues, affected as much by institutional and policy histories as social movements. Lack of response to Thompson’s charismatic delivery revealed cultural differences across the Pacific, even though many of the attendees and presenters work within the racially-charged spaces of community engagement. Was he and the MCA importing these ideas with the hope that Australians would embrace their own contentious colonial histories and current policies related to race, indigeneity and migration?

Over the following two days, we heard several keynotes and listened to panels of artists, urban planners, and community practitioners. Senior Curator Ann Loxley began the first day by asking ‘what model can we imagine for artists working outside of the museum?’ Loxley and her MCA team have curated multiple projects under the guise of C3West, MCA’s initiative that wades into that uneasy but potentially productive relationship between community, commerce and culture.1 Loxley asked the conference to take a process-based approach to help us understand how artists can participate in civic life through urban planning and acting as public thinkers. She also described how C3West and the conference chose to use non-specialist language to promote inclusion for everyone involved in the projects. Most provocatively, Loxley outlined her conception of a contemporary ‘agora’, which refers to the Greek ‘gathering place’ or ‘assembly’ as a political and social space. Loxley feels that socially engaged practices can produce momentary agoras, and that Civic Actions can be a site where there is genuine and meaningful exchange of ideas

The first panel of the conference attempted to address two difficult questions: what does ethical socially engaged practice look like and does it inhibit artistic excellence? The question of ethics took a different shape during each presentation, but what was clear was that each context and project brings with it complex ethical concerns. The artists indicated awareness of ethical issues, cultural appropriation and the re-presentation of projects. For example, New Zealand artist Michel Tuffery explained that for him it is critical to get the local traditional owners acceptance before beginning his projects in their communities. 

In her virtual keynote, Director of Situations (Bristol) Claire Doherty introduced the forthcoming Theaster Gates project, Sanctum, by asking: ‘How do artists contribute to civic life?’ Doherty engaged in a prickly topic for social engaged artists and their affiliates: how do we determine the effectiveness of a project beyond quantifiable data? Curator David Cross’s summary of Claire Doherty’s work was insightful and helped connect to the content of the day’s presentations.

The afternoon panel tackled the questions: What is the role of artists in urban and social planning processes? What kind of job for an artist is place making? What do artists contribute to social planning? The panelists openly discussed the detailed approach of curators and of the MCA in developing projects. The variety of institutions represented, working in varied ways (urban planning, situated inside and outside the museum), provided particulars of work in Boston and Sydney, and were frank about the challenges they had encountered. These moments of specificity helped ground the larger questions the symposium set out to explore. 

During the final keynote of the day Mexican artist Héctor Zamora echoed some of Doherty’s earlier assertions as he described several of his projects. His work addresses the particulars of place and he responds to the realities of each place through careful research. He ended by discussing a work in Havana, in which he reactivated an art school complex through sound; a series of buildings for a proposed National Art School, the brainchild of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, which was never completed and had laid abandoned for decades. 

On Saturday the conference moved out to Parramatta, the location of many of C3West’s projects. Hetti Perkins gave her keynote virtually, and underscored the political significance of place in terms of Indigenous voices and achieving social justice and sustainability. She acknowledged the difficulty of identifying who is the public and what is the public domain. Tony Albert picked up on this theme and detailed his public memorial to black diggers in Hyde Park, Sydney. Yininmadyemi–Thou didst let fall based on his grandfather’s story of service to country and the continued injustices leveled at Indigenous servicemen and women. As a final keynote, itinerant artist Jun Yang took us through several of his projects including work in Vienna and Taipei, each time raising questions about the role of the artist in culture, and reminding the audience that contemporary art can take many forms when it addresses social issues. 

I attended a workshop titled ‘Attended Baggage: Unpacking and Working with Dysfunction, Chaos and Community’ hosted by John Kirkman, Director of ICE (Information Cultural Exchange, Parramatta) and several artists who had worked on his projects. This was less discursive, and more an intimate exchange between artists and audience. While the project itself emphasised how urgent varied ‘interventions’ are, what it really revealed was how artists negotiate their own well-being and build sustainable networks when working with communities at risk.2

Ann Loxley chaired Civic Actions final panel: ‘What models can we imagine for artists working beyond the museum?’ John Kirkman, Nato Thompson, MCA Director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, and artist Brook Andrew debated the limits and criteria of action when working with businesses, and also the benefits/drawbacks of artists working on short-term versus long term projects. Director of Curatorial and Digital at the MCA, Blair French gave his reflections at the end of the day: he described how the work the MCA does hopes to produce horizons beyond the architecture of the museum, while maintaining a sense of awareness and vulnerability about power imbalances. And like all good conferences, it ended with a party.

While attendees delved into the questions Loxley articulated at the start, as has become customary with these conferences, they are never addressed with complete satisfaction. What remains important are the continued debates about public/participatory art practices that address social and political issues. There is no need to close down this dialogue with resolutions and finitude, but keep the exchange of ideas to push the process into the often uncomfortable territory that comes with fights for social justice. What is always needed is a platform for convergence of practitioners, government workers, curators, artists, educators, and arts professionals, to nut out the complexities.

A few participants raised pertinent questions about programming: one lamented that Civic Actions remained bound within conventional conference structures. If the conference was about how and why to engage with community, shouldn’t Civic Actions panels include these participants and audience to hear what they have to say? Could the site of the discussion take place in proximity to these contested spaces rather than in the institution which is trying to de-centre? Those who were present gave incredible insights, shared stories, and illuminated unseen/unheard aspects of projects not often documented or discussed. It is important to recognise how the local context and those working in it may be able to respond directly to the expressed needs of the communities better than the larger institutions. But it is clear that MCA and C3West are allies in this effort.

notes: 

1. C3 West was founded by the MCA in consultation with Jock McQueenie. It ‘creates contexts in which artists collaborate with businesses and non-arts government organisations to deliver targeted and socially aware projects. … Since 2006 C3West has developed a range of partnerships with corporations and communities in Greater Sydney. C3West places contemporary artists at the core of projects which give voice to local issues and actively involve the business sector in new ways of working together’. See https://www.mca.com.au/media/uploads/files/141029_C3West_MR_Website.pdf

2. For more information on Michel Tuffery’s workshop and the toolkit he outlined, visit http://www.mca.com.au/civic-actions-live-blog/