In Search of a True Democracy within Forms of Visual Representation
A dissertation submitted to the Dublin Institute of Technology in part fulfillment of the requirements for award of BA Photography
DIT School of Media, Directorate of Applied Art
I hereby certify that the material submitted in this dissertation towards the award of BA in Photography is entirely my own work and has not been submitted for any academic assessment other than part-fulfillment of the award named above. Signature of Candidate............................................. Date:..................................................................
I would like to thank Ellen Thornton for her invaluable advice and guidance throughout the process of completing this dissertation. Special thanks must go to Robert McCormack for his constant advice, assistance and friendship. I would also like to thank all my tutors, family and friends (including doggies), who have been very supportive and understanding over the duration of this journey. Peace.
Social Practice refers to a number of collaborative, participatory and relational art movements that began to take shape in the 1960’s. These relatively new forms of artistic engagements have surfaced in an attempt by artists to include citizens in a more socially inclusive form of art production. Art production of this kind directly challenges the historical notion of the artist as a producer of art objects such as paintings that were traditionally assessed primarily on their aesthetic qualities. This dissertation is an investigation into such practices. It will establish a theoretical framework based on the formation of these practices, and will provide analysis into the critical thinking provided by recognized theorists that are essential to the assessment of these artistic methodologies. This dissertation will also critique the work of two visual artists who frame their respective practices within the parameters of social practice. Both of these artists employ photographic techniques in their attempt to affect a degree of positive social change within marginalized communities.
Table of Contents
Declaration.........................................................................................ii Acknowledgments.............................................................................iii Abstract..............................................................................................iv Table of Contents...............................................................................v List of Illustrations............................................................................vi Introduction........................................................................................1
1.1 Get up, Get Involved......................................................5 1.2 Historical Framework....................................................8 1.3 But is it Art?...................................................................11 1.4 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.................................15 1.5 Weapons of Mass Curiosity……………......................17
2.1 Representing Democracy……....................................19 2.2 Lost in Translation......................................................21 2.3 History Repeating Itself……………………………..22 2.4 Information…………………………………………..23 2.6 One Voice Among Many………………………….....24 2.7 Image as Prompt…………………………………….25 2.8 The Politics of Community………………………….27 2.9 The wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?...................................30
3.1 Ewald.................................................................32 3.2 Briski….……………………………………….36
List of Illustrations
Figure 0.1 Santiago Sierra (2013) Veteran of the War in Northern Ireland Facing the Corner, October 2013 [Online Image] [Accessed 14th January 2014] Available from World Wide Web: http://joannelaws.wordpress.com
Figure 0.2 Wendy Ewald (2006) Mariam Born 1995, Egypt: Arrived in Margate 2004 [Online Image] [Accessed 10th September 2013] Available from World Wide Web: http://www.artangel.org.uk/projects/2005/towards_a_promised_land
Figure 0.3 Wendy Ewald (2006) Christian Born 1995, Democratic Republic of Congo: Arrive Margate 2004 [Online Image] [Accessed 14th September 2013] Available from World Wide Web: http://www.artangel.org.uk/projects/2005/towards_a_promised_land/portraits/christian_portrait_2
Figure 0.4 Wendy Ewald (2006) Installation Triptych 1 [Online Image] [Accessed 16th January 2014] Available from World Wide Web: http://www.artangel.org.uk/projects/2005/towards_a_promised_land
Figure 0.5 Wendy Ewald (2006) Installation Triptych 2 [Online Image] [Accessed 16th January 2014] Available from World Wide Web: http://www.artangel.org.uk/projects/2005/towards_a_promised_land
Figure 0.6 Mamuni, (2003) Self Portrait [Online Image] Accessed 17th January 2014] Available from World Wide Web: http://www.kids-with-cameras.org/bornintobrothels/
Figure 0.7 Born into Brothels Promo Shot (2003) [Online Image] [Accessed 10th December 2013] Available from World Wide Web: http://nymag.com/nymetro/movies/features/10592/
Figure 0.8 Avijit, 11 Kids (2003) [Online Image] Accessed 17th January 2014] Available from World Wide Web: http://www.kids-with-cameras.org/bornintobrothels/
Fig 0.9 Tapasi, 11 Self Portrait (2003) [Online Image] Accessed 17th January 2014] Available from World Wide Web: http://www.kids-with-cameras.org/bornintobrothels/
Fig 10 Puja, 11 Beach (2003) [Online Image] Accessed 17th January 2014] Available from World Wide Web: http://www.kids-with-cameras.org/bornintobrothels/
Fig 11 Fig 11 Anupam Nath/Associated Press (2012) [Online Image] Accessed 21th January 2014] Available from World Wide Web: http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/27/lower-house-gives-nod-to-food-security-bill/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0
Fig 12 Getty Images 2014 [Online Image] Accessed 21th January 2014] Available from World Wide Web: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/worldnews/4450473/Millions-of-people-in-India-live-in-slums-like-the-one-in-Mumbai-filmed-for-Slumdog-Millionaire.html
Fig 13 Getty Images 2014 [Online Image] Accessed 11th January 2014] Available from World Wide Web: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/22/india-slums_n_2931634.html
Figure 14 Nick Ut (1972) Napalm Girl [Online Image] [Accessed 20th January 2014] Available from World Wide Web: http://www.aajaphoto.org/2011/07/03/photojournalist-nick-ut-earns-aaja-lifetime-achievement-award/nick-ut1
The concept of art as something conceived by an autonomous artist for display to an audience has been redefined and renegotiated. This process of renegotiation began in the early part of the twentieth century. It has been further progressed by the proliferation of participatory and collaborative art since the nineteen sixties. Recently, Social Practice has emerged as the favored term to describe art projects that frequently cross reference inter-disciplinary practices such as Performance, Sociology, Visual Media and Ethnography. These practices rely on the combined artistic input of artists and participants, often resulting in projects that blur the boundaries between art and the everyday. The importance given to participants within these practices is something Suzanne Lacey comments on when she suggests one of the fundamental characteristics of this work is the factoring of an audience into the construction of the work as a way of engaging them in issues relevant to them (Lacey, 1994:19). This dissertation is an investigation into the role of visual artists and participants who collaborate to produce works within the context of Social Practice. It will pay particular attention to artists who employ visual methods such as Participatory Photography when producing socially engaged art projects within marginalized communities. As a way of understanding these working methods, this dissertation will trace the historical trajectory of Social Practice. It will critically examine how visual artists have learned to address some of the complex issues that are essential to successful collaborative projects, when framed within the context of Social Practice. These issues include aspects relating to Authorship, Agency, Community, Activation, Aesthetics, Ethics and Methods of Assessment. By conducting this research, this dissertation will establish whether visual artists can connect positively with communities, and succeed in affecting any form of social change that is of benefit to individuals within these communities.
Photography plays an important role in social practice. It has also always played a part in documenting the suffering of communities who face hardship through issues such as poverty and conflict. Since its invention it has been widely used as a tool by activists seeking social change. Traditionally, this documentation process has been the remit of the photojournalist or documentary photographer. These processes of visual documentation have a long and rich tradition; having demonstrated over the years how powerful a photograph can be in swaying public opinion, in some instances changing the course of history. The tradition of Documentary Photography began in the nineteenth century. Collecting images was an important feature in the implementation of information gathering in programs such as the Farm Security Administration in America. During the twentieth century the FSA employed over twenty photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee and others to document the effects of the great depression. Earlier that century the National Child Labor Committee in America employed social reformer and photographer Lewis Hine. Hine began photographing exploited children working within coalmines and cotton mills across the country. During this period, the wider American public did not believe that child labor existed. Hine set out to gather photographic evidence he hoped would lead to labour reform for children. He eventually persuaded legislators to change the law on this matter.
Photography of this nature has also been used to manipulate individuals or whole populations. For example, photography was widely used as a tool of propaganda by the Nazi party during World War Two as a way of stirring up anti-semitic sentiment amongst the German population. Today, image manipulation has never been easier, restrictions are frequently imposed on photojournalists that have raised concerns regarding the subjective agendas of some governments. Further, citizens possessing simple image recording devices now have the potential to see their captured images make headlines around the world in seconds. These factors, coupled with declining magazine and newspaper sales, have all contributed to a crisis within photojournalism and documentary photography. The importance once given to both these forms of photography has diminished, and the days of the eagerly awaited photo story once seen in Life Magazine have long past. This point is noted by Fred Richtin who suggests, ‘As newspapers and news magazines have become less indispensible and are perceived as less credible, the photograph as societal arbiter has lost its most persuasive platforms’ (Richtin, 2013:11). The last forty years has seen an upsurge in visual artists teaching photography to marginalized communities, providing them with the opportunity to present alternative visual representations of themselves to those associated with documentary photography and photojournalism. In doing so, artists aim to allow participants determine how they are visually portrayed within a broader social context. This approach aims to remove them from the familiar Poor Victim tag often associated with traditional visual media. This dissertation will establish how visual artists using participatory methods strive for a more democratic approach as to how people are visually represented within these communities. It will emphasize the importance of a more collaborative working methodology as a way of truly giving agency to citizens who sometimes need it most.
The research methodology used for this dissertation will be literature based and will include the use of images. Chapter one will consist of a review of literature surrounding issues relating to participatory and collaborative practices. It will give a brief historical overview of some of the art historical movements that have helped shape the emergence of such practices. It will also identify some of the key theorists writing on the subject. This analysis will help chart how social practice has evolved in the current political and economical climate to play an important role in the critical thinking which forms much of todays art practices. Chapter two will consist of a discourse surrounding concepts relating to social practice including notions of community, authorship, aesthetics and ethics. It will investigate the ethical and aesthetic challenges that arise whenever visual artists use images in a collaborative setting to convey something. All images are read depending on the context in which they are presented. Geoffrey Batchen suggests ‘The identity of a photograph is thereby equated not with some kind of inherent photographic qualities but with what that photograph actually does in the world’ (Batchen, 1999: 06). Chapter three consists of a critique of two visual artists who work in a collaborative capacity with children in marginalized communities. Towards a Promised Land (2005) by Wendy Ewald and Born into Brothels (2003) by Zana Briski will be analyzed for this purpose. Both these visual artists rely heavily on the use of participants for the completion and presentation of their work.
1.1 Get up, Get Involved
According to Pablo Helguera, Social Practice, is the term now most frequently used in the discourse to describe the expanded field of art practices that employ, Participatory, Community, Collaborative and Relational working methods. These methods are key concepts in the formation of socially inclusive art projects, requiring various forms of engagement between a given artist, and a carefully selected group of people. They play an integral part in the construction of social practice as a working ideology. However, Helguera also suggests, the term is frequently employed as a way of diffusing the highly charged debate within these practices, as to what constitutes a socially engaged, contemporary work of art. Commenting on the exclusion of the word Art, Helguera states:
The exclusion of “art” coincides with a growing general discomfort with the connotations of the term. “Social practice” avoids evocations of both the modern role of the artist (as an illuminated visionary) and the postmodern version of the artist (as a self conscious critical being). Instead the term democratizes the construct, making the artist into an individual whose specialty includes working with society in a professional capacity (Helguera, 2011: 03)
These art practices all fall under the same social practice moniker, however, this rarely implies they all have identical working strategies. It is useful here to make some distinctions. For example, participatory practice usually employs methods whereby participants are used in a nominal capacity to realize a given project. This means participants could be given a set of direct instructions by an artist, or used as instruments within a pre-planned project that is authored by the artist. In contrast, collaborative practice frequently involves the use of collaborators who will often provide content and suggestions that help develop a project in conjunction with the artist, allowing collaborators become co-authors and producers of the project. (Kravagna, 2009). As an overall concept, contemporary social practice refers to a form of art making which requires participants to engage with artists in the creative process of artistic activity. The implementation of these methodologies leads to a redefining of the traditional notion of object-based art, and repositions the role of the artist as the sole creator, or author of the work, to one who cedes an amount of authorship to participants. These methodologies directly challenge the dominant form of art creation whereby a small number of professional artists produce art to be viewed and consumed by an audience in the marketplace. The distinction between participation and collaboration is important. For example, In The Double Face of Collaborative Art: The Exchange of Theory and Practice (2014) Laia Guillamet and David Roca acknowledge that within collaborative projects, there is always a hierarchical artistic presence guiding the work, they suggest ‘these type of collaborative art projects involve a working team -qualitative- separation into two camps: on the one hand those who choose what to do and, at the other end, everyone else’ (Guillamet, Roca, 2014).
Many artists working within social practice are often unconcerned about acceptance from what they perceive to be a tight knit parochial art world, accusing it as driven by market trends and responsible for the intensive monetization of contemporary art. (Kester, 2004: xix). This has encouraged critical theorists to reconsider the traditional relationship between artist and audience, or art ‘object’ and viewer. Advances in technology resulting in the easy dissemination of ideas between artists and participants have also played an important role in the formation of these practices. This is noted by Lisa Moran from the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), who suggests ‘The development of new technologies and improved mechanisms of communication and distribution, combined with the breakdown of medium-specific artforms, provided greater possibilities for artists to physically interact with the viewer’ (Moran, 2014: 5). Grounded in all of these methods is a desire to initiate a broader sense of social inclusion and a more democratic form of art production. The surrendering of power by a given artist over the work in question leads to the expression of art through more than one authoritative voice, now including the collective voice of its participants. Social practice also results in a willingness by artists to challenge the conservative, commodity driven attitudes within fine art institutions. As a result, there has been a shift in the ongoing collective rethinking of art practice, this is noted by Claire Bishop when commenting on the role of artists and participants within these practices, she states:
The artist is conceived less as an individual producer of discrete objects than as a collaborator and producer of situations; the work of art as a finite, portable, commodifiable product is reconceived as an ongoing or long-term project with an unclear beginning and end; whilst the audience, previously conceived as a ‘viewer’ or ‘beholder’ is now repositioned as a co-producer or participant. (Bishop, 2012: 02)
The concept of collaboration and participation as a means of affecting social change has been around for some time. According to Richard Sennett it can be observed in the sixteenth century writings of French essayist Michel de Montaigne. Central to Montaigne’s critical thinking was the construction of a dialogical strategy based on co-operation. This strategy challenged the idea of a society that should be bound by a passive/submissive outlook towards any perceived authority. For Montaigne, the essence of true co-operation was based on the ability to always consider what was in the minds of the public (Sennett, 2012). Montaigne believed that by applying a system of shared dialogue into everyday co-operation, this would help suppress the notion of a top down authoritative regime. He was opposed to the idea of a society that blindly accepted and followed abstract principles or charismatic leaders without question. This philosophy becomes relevant when considered in the context of a social practice that relies on dialogue, shared authorship, and exchange of ideas between participants and artists seeking to realize anything together. The concept of shared ideas through collaboration can also be found in the pedagogical teachings of Paulo Friere, he states, ‘Through dialogue, the-teacher-of-the-student’s and the-students-of-the –teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students’ (Friere, 1996: 61).
1.2 Historical Framework
According to Claire Bishop, the formation of Social Practice can be attributed to the changes that occurred within the arts in Europe in the early part of the twentieth century. Up to this point, modern art was usually presented as a two or three-dimensional object and almost always viewed within the confines of the gallery. These changes are particularly evident in Italian and Russian art and theatre of the period. They are also found in the participatory and performance-based actions of the Avant-Garde Dada movement that began in Zurich Switzerland in 1916. In Italy, the activities of futurists such as the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti were to be manifested in a series of touring Serate, or evening parties, that were held in public theatres or on the streets. The purpose of these structured theatre performances was to bring together a collection of futurist artists, composers and poets with the intention of inciting a violent confrontational reaction from the attending audience, these frequently led to the performance ending in chaos (Bishop, 2012: 42). Central to the futurists manifesto was a desire to promote nationalism; they also sought to undermine the dominant bourgeoisie art and class structure of the time. During this period the vast majority of the Italian population frequently attended the theatre as opposed to reading books, and through these participatory Serate the futurists sought to promote a new violent form of performance that would stir the Italian population into becoming a modern technology driven nation. The futurist call to action is noted by Claire Bishop who comments ‘Futurist performances were not designed to negate the presence of the audience, but to exaggerate it, to make it visible to itself, to stir it up, halt complacency, and cultivate confidence rather than docile respect’ (Bishop, 2012: 46).
Following the Russian revolution of 1917, constructivist artists also began to negotiate ways of challenging bourgeois art. The Bourgeois viewed the artist as a genius, and spectators as subjects in need of enlightenment. The futurist’s plan was to move art out of the autonomous realm and into a more collaborative experience that involved audience participation. During this period, artists such as Alexander Rodchenko began to apply practical methods to the mass production of art, which included photography, graphic design and textiles. This art was produced for mass consumption; it was in direct conflict with the notion of individually produced art for consumption by rich patrons within the bourgeois classes. Elsewhere, Aleksandr Bogdanov founded The Proletkult (1918-20) for the purpose of creating art driven by collective ideals and effecting social change within society. (Bishop, 2012: 49-50). After the First World War, various manifestations of participatory practices can be found within the Avant-Garde. The Dada movement in particular developed audience inclusive projects as part of the Dada-Season in 1921. For one such project ‘Dada artists and writers held a mock trial of the anarchist author turned nationalist Maurice Barres, in which members of the public were invited to sit on the jury’ (Bishop, 2006:10). The Dada movement sought to directly challenge the art establishment and its outmoded philosophies. They were amongst the first collectives to engage the general public in the creation of art through processes rather than the production of art objects. By engaging the public with an incendiary approach to art production, they challenged participants to question who and why art was created for in the first place. Through their performances they sought to shock participants into rethinking the function of art. Grant Kester makes this point when he suggests rather than communicating with viewers, the works of art produced by the avant-garde in the early twentieth century were aimed at challenging the very idea of rational discourse. (Kester, 2004: 12). This challenge was based on the assumption that traditional discursive systems such as the visual and written can be dangerously abstract and objectifying. Kester is suggests that although people rely on these discursive systems to understand the world, the avant-garde believed that the function of art was to force people to view the world anew, shock them from the complacent world they inhabited (Kester, 2004: 12).
These art movements were the precursor to the formation of what is now referred to as Social Practice. According to Grant Kester social practice began to take shape in both America and the United Kingdom from the 1960’s onwards. In America, collaborative projects began to emerge in the form of agitational and anti-war protests by collectives such as the Guerilla art action group, (GAAG) and the dialogical and participatory-based projects of artists such as Cheri Gaulke and Suzanne Lacey. Both of these artists were associated with the Woman’s Building in Los Angeles. In the United Kingdom, these manifestations were informed around schemes such as the Town Artist and Greater London Community Arts Initiatives. (Kester, 2004: 125). During this period an explosion of performance and installation art in bot countries led to a surge of collaboration and interaction with audiences in galleries and site-specific locations. The antiwar movement spurned this period of experimentation; it was also influenced by the anti-authoritarian based methods of the Situationist movement that began in 1957. During the sixties, American and British collaborative and performance artists such as Gordon Mata-Clark, Lesley Labowitz, Suzanne Lacey and Stephan Willats began to encourage a more interactive experience between artist and audience by producing work which did not adhere to traditional art practice methods (Kester, 2004: 125). In doing so, they began to relinquish authority over the work they produced in favor of a more participatory approach to their practice. This approach allowed these artists to present their work outside of the confines of institutions such as museums. These institutions failed to understand the context in which this art was being produced. They were driven by market demands and unprepared to accommodate the work these artists were producing. Cheri Gaulke has observed the move away from object based art production to one which engaged more directly with communities outside what Brian O’Doherty referred to as the ‘white cube’ of the gallery space (O’Doherty, 1976). She suggests collaborative artists sought to ‘move beyond simple theatricality and [incorporate] elements of networking, working within a real-life environment, and communicating with a mass audience’ (Gaulke, quoted in Kester, 2004: 125).
1.3 But is it Art?
Claire Bishop, Nicolas Bourraiud, and Grant Kester have emerged as the main theorists on the subject of contemporary Social Practice. Bishop, unlike Kester and Bourriaud, questions the validity of much of this work, and believes the manifestation of social practice has resulted in what she has coined the Social Turn in contemporary art. Bishop first used the term social turn in 2006 following a surge of interest in social practice in the 1990’s after the collapse of communism in 1989. She suggests this turn can be attributed to a number of art historical events including the emergence of the avant-garde in the early twentieth century and the neo avant-garde circa 1968 (Bishop, 2012: 3). According to Bishop, this social turn has led to an Ethical Turn, whereby the critique of art within social practice is not judged on the aesthetic quality of artists work but on the processes they employ to produce their work. She suggests collaborative artists often defend their work on the basis that it is not always produced for monetary gain, thereby offering a resistance to the production for profit values of the capitalist system ‘This emphasis on process over product (i.e. means over ends) is justified as oppositional to capitalisms predilection for the contrary’ (Bishop, 2006: 179-185). Hal Foster has also raised concerns about social practice. In his essay Chat Rooms (2004), which was originally written as a reaction to Nicholas Bourriauds Relational Aesthetics (2002), he questions the reliance on discursive activity and information within collaborative projects and asks, ‘when has art, at least since the Renaissance, not involved discursivity and sociability?’ (Foster, 2004: 194). Foster is critical of the importance given to the social aspect of this work over the physical production of art objects, further suggesting ‘Perhaps discursivity and sociability are in the foreground of art today because they are scarce elsewhere’ (Foster, 2004: 194). Advocates such as Kester and Bourriaud suggest this is exactly the reason why socially engaged artists commit to this working strategy. For example, Nicolas Bourriaud suggests, society has developed highly advanced communication zones, but personal communication structures are falling apart, social practice provides us with an inter-human commerce, strengthening the social bond (Bourriaud, 2002:16). Brian Hand takes up this point, he states:
Community based participatory art is a process led, rather than a product led, dialogical encounter and participating entails sharing a desire to unveil or discover the power structures of reality with a view to creatively imagining a contestatory and oppositional platform where radical and plural democracy might take root. (Hand, 2014: 11)
The debate around the aesthetic, or lack of, within these practices is one that continually separates the opinions of theorists such as Kester, Bourriaud and Bishop. Bourriaud suggests, artists working within social practice consciously create work that defies art historical criteria aimed at assessing a visible aesthetic; he suggests ‘The ambition of artists who include their practice within the slipstream of historical modernity is to repeat neither its forms or its claims’ (Bourriaud, 1998: 13). In contrast, Bishop rejects the importance given to the idea that the aesthetic within social practice is formed in the collaborative process, she suggests, ‘These practices are less interested in a relational aesthetic than in the creative rewards of collaborative activity, whether in the form of working with preexisting communities or establishing ones own interdisciplinary network’ (Bishop, 2006: 179-185). For Bourriaud, the aesthetic within relational art can be found in the process by which it seeks to create inter-subjective encounters outside of the communication zones that are usually pushed upon society (Bourriaud, 1998: 16). He further suggests, there has been a complete upheaval in the aesthetic and cultural goals set out by modern art, ‘What is collapsing before our very eyes is nothing other than this falsely aristocratic conception of the arrangement of works of art, associated with the feeling of territorial acquisition’ (Bourriaud, 1998: 15).
Claire Bishop employs this perceived lack of aesthetic as the main driving force for her criticism of the Turkish artists collective Oda Projesi. However, this collective suggest their work should not be judged on aesthetic value, but on the sustained relationships they develop within participating communities. Bishop dismisses this claim, suggesting their work ‘provides a clear example of the way in which aesthetic judgments have been overtaken by ethical criteria (Bishop, 2006: 179-185). She accuses the artists of avoiding aesthetic judgment, suggesting if the idea of an aesthetic seems dangerous to socially engaged artists, it deserves further investigation, rather than the avoidance any critical analysis. (Bishop, 2006: 179-185). She is sympathetic to some of the ideals of social practice, describing the outright critics of this work as people who would have us condemned to the passive role of spectator, but stops short of criticising them with any real conviction. Her main criticisims are reserved for those who disregard the importance of a visible aesthetic in the creation of art in favor of dialogical/relational processes within collaborative and participatory art situations. She rejects the claim that dialogue can replace the production of art objects, suggesting ‘good intentions should not render art immune to critical analysis’ (Bishop, 2006: 179-185). She identifies the difficulties in assessing collaborative art as being responsible for the current impasse observed between those for and against these practices, but does little to help break this impasse, further suggesting that the rejection by socially engaged artists of any assessment based on aesthetics, has led to a situation whereby all this work is viewed by advocates to be successful, regardless of the outcomes of the finished product, she states:
But the urgency of this social task has led to a situation in which socially collaborative practices are all perceived to be equally important artistic gestures of resistance: there can be no failed, unsuccessful, unresolved, or boring works of participatory art because all are equally essential to the task of repairing the social bond (Bishop, 2012: 13)
According to Grant Kester, artists working within social practice view the commodification of art as ‘symptomatic of increasing global divisions of class, wealth, and privilege’ (Kester, 2004: xix). As a consequence of this, he also suggests artists who choose to work within the parameters of social practice often deliberately ‘limit the impact of his or her work by fine-tuning it to the specific conditions and needs of a “merely” local set of collaborators, rather than the potentially global audience of the art world’ (Kester, 2004: xix). Bishop finds this artistic outlook defeatist, and has referred to some of the smaller community based art projects as curries for refugees (Bishop, 2006). Nicolas Bourriaud comments on the indifference sometimes shown by critics such as Bishop towards some socially engaged artists suggesting “An overwhelming majority of critics and philosophers are reluctant to come to grips with contemporary practice’ (Bourriaud, 1998: 07). This statement suggests that although critics such as Bishop might see the value in some of this work they will never accept it as a form of art per se. The stand off between critics and advocates of social practice continues, and given the nature, scope and complexity of the work this is understandable. The complex nature of this work can be observed in the description given by Dr Jonathan Vickery, when explaining the many guises this work can operate under ‘Participatory art may just be discovering history, uncovering suppressed or embedded memory, making claim to a place and space, or learning how active citizenry can shape the urban environment’ (Vickery, 2014: 4). Critics see this work as marginal and lacking in artistic merit, advocates reject the fielded accusations regarding the lack of aesthetic value within these practices by suggesting the accusations are typical of snobbish, institutional, and hierarchical attitudes to art at a time when there needs to be a more egalitarian form of art (Kester, 2004: 124). The inter-disciplinary nature of social practice renders it extremely difficult to assess. This has resulted in a stand off amongst art critics and theorists whereby the criteria for judging such practices is frequently left open to interpretation. Perhaps one way of understanding these working methods can be found in the description given by Pablo Helguera, he states:
Socially engaged art functions by attaching itself to subjects and problems that normally belong to other disciplines, moving them temporarily into a space of ambiguity. It is this temporary snatching away of subjects into the realm of art-making that brings new insights to a particular problem or condition and in turn makes its visible to other disciplines (Helguera, 2011: 5).
A number of ways have emerged by which critics such as Claire Bishop seek to judge this work. For example, Bishop suggests that due to an ethical turn in art criticism there needs to be a heightened awareness amongst art critics as to the exact nature of collaborative projects. She suggests assessment should be based on the production methods and processes used by the artist in the creation and presentation of the finished work. Further assessment should be given on whether or not the artist is judged to have failed to represent participants to the full (Bishop, 2006: 179-185). The discourse relating to methods of assessment within social practice is fraught with difficulty and will continue as an ongoing project. The very nature of these practices demands that it does. Is it political? Is it aesthetic? Is it both?. Ultimately, it seems that the assessment of this work should be conducted on a project-by-project basis. The debate is fuelled by the complexities that inevitably arise whenever authorship is shared between artists and collaborators. The difficulties surrounding the assessment of this work is also observed by Jacques Ranciere, he states:
The difficulty of critical art is not that of having to negotiate between politics and art. It is having to negotiate the relation between the two aesthetic logics that exist independently of it, because they belong to the aesthetic regime itself (Ranciere, 2009: 46)
1.4 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Social practice does not revolve around or adhere to a strict set of artistic guidelines. For example, socially engaged artists who work with participants do so for reasons that can differ enormously from one project to the next. Not all of these projects immediately suggest they set out to repair, educate or empower communities. Some artists can employ confrontational rather than harmonious working methods when producing these projects. The work of conceptual artist Santiago Sierra frequently relies on the use of participants, but the way in which Sierra engages with participants has been ‘accused of being unethical, exploitative or authoritative’ (Montenegro, 2013). Sierras work is highly confrontational and often requires that participants perform demeaning tasks for a minimum wage payment. In a recent exhibition of his work in Derry titled Veterans (2013), Sierra employed five British army veterans to stand facing the walls of gallery spaces situated at a former army barracks in Ebrington, Fig 0.1 Veteran of the war in Northern Ireland Facing the Corner (2013). Another feature of his exhibition was an installation titled Psychophonies (2013) in which recordings were made at locations around the city where it was alleged acts of torture had taken place. An insight into the artists methodologies and reactions to his work from the public can be observed in a press release for this show on the Derry City of Culture website, it states:
Offering little by way of apology or solution to the predicament of those involved, Sierra’s work presents ethical dilemmas for both spectator and art institution and often implicates the audience in the events they witness (DCOC, 2013)
In another of Sierras works titled 160 Cm Line Tattooed on 4 People (2000), the artist employs the services of a number drug dependent prostitutes by paying them to have a line tattooed on their backs in exchange for one shot of heroin. In an interview given by the artist for the Tateshots series he suggests, People need money, people have to work, and I’m looking for strong images to express this, (Tateshots, 2008). The suggestion is that this paid contract is typical of any contract where someone is employed to perform a task. These participants would normally receive less money on the street for performing fellatio than it would cost for the heroin supplied by the artist. Sierras work generates vitriol and enthusiasm in equal amounts, some critics find this work exploitative to the point of being reprehensible. According to Graham-Coulter Smith Sierras work is ‘the antithesis of participation’ (Coulter-Smith, 2009: 277) ‘arrogant’, ‘pretentious’, and ‘derisory’ (Coulter-Smith, 2009: 278). Others such as Andreas Montenegro, highlight the fact that participants within Sierras work can be used in very different ways to those in many of the projects discussed in texts by Grant Kester and Nicolas Bourriaud. Montenagro suggests that unlike Bourriaud’s advocacy for a ‘positive’ renegotiation of human relations…..or Kester’s ameliorative ‘dialogical’ practice, Sierras work does not seek alternative formations to the current state of affairs (Montenagro, 2014). Sierras work challenges the very institutions that choose to exhibit his work. He suggests that many people who operate within high art circles are uncomfortable with his work because they view themselves to be part of a higher culture (Tateshots, 2010). Sierras work suggests a shattering of the connotations associated with the word participant within social practice. His work does not set out to try and repair social bonds. It clinically exposes the frailty of the social fabric by holding a mirror up to society itself.
The assessment of any collaborative encounter between artists and participants will always question whether the artist has applied sufficient ethical considerations during that encounter. In 1992 the artist Alfredo Jarr was commissioned to produce a site-specific body of work in London. The resulting exhibition titled One or Two Things I Know about Them (1992) involved the participation of the local Bangladeshi community and included the use of photographs in the multi media project. The photographs in question were portraits of young Bangladeshi women, but were accompanied by racist/sexist slogans were taken from an interview and used by the artist without the permission of the subjects. After lengthy discussions between the artist, the gallery and the subjects the photographs were removed from the exhibition (Kester, 2004: 149). This would suggest the use of artistic license without consent can clearly lead to problems regarding how subject matter is presented within the participatory working method. It also suggests that in some situations artists are clearly prepared to override the concerns of participants and use their authority as an artist to include contested elements they deem necessary for the completion of the work, explaining how these situations can arise, Kester states:
In some community based public art projects the community’s voice is never fully heard. The institutional authority of the artist and his or her privileged relationship to channels of legitimate discourse about the project (through media coverage, alliance with sponsoring and funding agencies, etc.) can conspire to create the appearance of a harmony of interests even where none may actually exist. (Kester, 2004: 149)
1.5 Weapons of Mass Curiosity
There are many artists and agencies now employing the photographic medium as a source of representation, educational instruction and agency for participants within underprivileged communities. Examples of these working methodologies can be observed in the projects of Jens Haanning The Refugee Calendar (2002), Zana Briski Born into Brothels (2004) Frenchmottershead Over the Threshold (2011), Eugenie Dolberg Open Shutters Iraq (2006) and Wendy Ewald Towards a Promised Land (2006). Agencies, such as Nancy McGirrs Photokids, and Caroline Wangs Photovoice also seek to give a voice to participants by using methods such as photo elicitation and participatory photography. These artists and agencies all work in a collaborative manner with participants. They do so as a way of challenging traditional documentary methods of visual representation by providing alternative photographic techniques to those normally found in photography of this kind. Unconventional sites for the exhibition and distribution of images are also frequently used to challenge viewer’s expectations as to how photography should be presented to the public. Images produced from participatory projects are often presented at carefully chosen site-specific locations that might assist in the formation of a narrative based on the subject matter of that project. They are not always based on the technical ability of the participants or aesthetic quality of their work but on what the participant is trying to convey to society. This approach leads to a questioning of the simplistic cultural assumptions that are often associated with imagery used to document these communities. Participatory photography has become synonymous with encounters of this kind. It is used to provide marginalized communities with the photographic tools and training to visually represent themselves. Images gathered in this way can help diminish the stereotypical view that communities of this nature are always victims. It achieves this by highlighting the many different facets of community life, not just the negative aspects often provided by documentary photography and photojournalism. Photo elicitation is an interviewing technique frequently used to help furnish information that cannot be gathered from conventional interview procedures. These processes will be explored further in chapter two.
2.1 Representing Democracy
Artists have always played a part in visually documenting social issues such as conflict and injustice within society. Historically, some artists have sought to initiate social change within their respective societal contexts by highlighting problems they viewed to be detrimental to the overall well being of humanity. Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Phillippe Auguste Jeanron, Francisco Goya and Jean-Louis Andre Theodore Gericault, have all produced textual art ‘objects’ in the form of paintings depicting social injustice and atrocity. These artists shared a desire to use their talent to inform society of such happenings, this is evident in an interview given by Pablo Picasso to a journalist in 1937 when he states:
What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only his eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician or a lyre at every level of his heart if he is a poet…..? On the contrary, he’s at the same time a political being…..painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy. (Picasso, 1937)
Artists such as Picasso produced autonomous art works that were medium specific and representational in nature. This could also be said of some traditional documentary photographers and photojournalists now receiving substantial fees for photographic prints within art galleries. However, the autonomous nature of the lone documentary photographer suggests enquiries into objectivity are always present. This is something that has been recognized from a very early stage in the development of photography. It is worth noting here that Dorothea Lange became a household name due to her photographic image of Florence Thompson Migrant Mother (1936). In 1978, Thomson was quoted as saying ‘I wish she (Lange) hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did’ (Thompson, 1978). At the turn of the twentieth century whilst speaking at the National conference of Charities and Corrections, social reformer and photographer Lewis Hine commented on the way in which photography could be manipulated when he suggested ‘Of course, you and I know that this unbounded faith in the integrity of the photograph is often rudely shaken, for while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph (Hine, 1980: 110).
Documentary photography and photojournalism of this nature have gained a reputation as disciplines that frequently present certain communities as people in need of enlightenment or help. This type of photography holds little sway with theorists such as Martha Rossler. In her essay In, Around, and Afterthoughts On Documentary Photography (2003), she is damning in her criticism of liberal minded documentarians suggesting, ‘Documentary photography has come to represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery’ (Rossler, 2003: 261). She highlights the need for a documentary practice that does not reinforce the prejudices that already exist within society towards marginalised communities. She further suggests ‘the common acceptance of the idea that documentary precedes, supplants, transcends, or cures full, substantive activism is an indicator that we do not yet have a real documentary’ (Rossler, 2003: 271).
Rosslers theories on documentary photography do not apply to all photography that documents. In his introduction to the ‘New Documents’ show (1967), John Szarkowski rightly points out that not all documentary photographers set out to effect social change. For example, he suggests photographers such as Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Dianne Arbus, documented the everyday with their photography but ‘their aim has not been to reform life, but to know it’ (Szarkowski, 2003: 270). The suggestion here is that some photographers take images out of curiosity. They are happy to let theorists (most of whom are not photographers) debate as to how and why they produce their work. An affinity for the medium over any political or social concerns can be observed in a short statement given by photographer Garry Winogrand. When asked why he took photographs he replied, ‘I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed’ (Winogrand, 1981). Today, record prices are paid for photographic images within galleries that are produced by photographers who have worked within or are working within the disciplines of documentary and photojournalism. This fact can be substantiated by the price one would expect to pay for Sebastio Selgado or Arthur Fellig (Weegee) photographic prints. However, the value given to images provided by photojournalists and documentary photographers outside the gallery space has been reduced considerably. This can be observed not only in monetary terms, for example, photojournalists trying to get paid for their work, but also in the way they have been devalued as objective arbiters in the dissemination of imagery aimed at creating social awareness (Ritchin, 2013: 10).
2.2 Lost in Translation
This point is taken up by Fred Ritchin, who suggests that one of the reasons for this devaluation is the way in which image-makers of this nature tend to ‘immediately confine those they depict to convenient categories by invoking an already existing visual trope’ (Ritchin, 2013: 7). Millions of digital images are uploaded onto the web each day, and within these images are those that try to inform the public of one injustice or another. These images are increasingly losing the battle for attention. Ritchin makes this point further suggesting, ‘imagery of a larger societal significance has a much harder time surfacing, let alone demanding attention’ (Ritchin, 2013: 9). The growing popularity of citizen journalism, coupled with the preference by mainstream media for celebrity snaps over imagery concerned with social commentary, have all been contributing factors in the growing unpopularity of traditional documentary and photojournalism. For example, images captured by citizen journalists are now often seen by both the public and print media as being more authentic than those produced by professionals. Citizens can quickly and easily tap into local events and capture images that imply a sense of urgency not found in photojournalism. They can provide the viewer with new ways of thinking about social and political issues by providing visual narratives that are often overlooked by photojournalists. These developments have completely altered the way in which we now receive visual information. They suggest that if photojournalism and documentary photography wish to move forward as objective visual forms of reportage, they need regain some lost credibility. There also needs to be a paradigm shift in the way photojournalists and documentary photographers think about and deal with the transition from traditional print media to digital reporting (Ritchin, 2013: 12). However, Ritchin also suggests that whilst these forms of image capture play an important role in informing society of political and economic failings, the societal factors that lead to the creation of these situations are very rarely given any meaningful visual exploration (Ritchin, 2013: 20). Visual artists working closely with communities are providing a deeper visual exploration by engaging with participants over sustained periods of time.
2.3 History Repeating Itself
In 2009, Stephen Mayes, a former secretary of the World Press Photo Awards questioned, ‘why most photojournalism investigates a very limited series of tropes in a limited series of visual approaches, becoming a self-replicating machine that churns off copies of itself in perpetual motion’ (Mayes, 2013: 21). Today, photojournalists and documentary photographers can no longer occupy without question the privileged societal perch they once made claim to. The question is, what are the alternatives? Ritchin rightly asks ‘Which kinds of image-based strategies might best engage readers, and which might manage to respect the rights, and the agency, of those depicted? (Ritchin, 2013: 7). The answer lies in the innovative ways in which some visual artists are now working in communities. Socially engaged artists deliberately steer clear of stereotypical concerned photography by exploring alternative visual narratives within the work they produce. For example, some visual artists might provide participants with the technical ability to become competent photographers and only use images provided by these participants as a way of allowing them form narratives of their own lived experiences. Others will combine their own images with those of participants as a way of blurring the lines between author and participant, and some will work with found images to provide participants with an archive which traces their own history and help develop collective memory. These aspects of participatory photography can assist communities by giving them the confidence and ability to tell their own stories using the photographic medium.
The way in which photography can evoke a sense of empowerment is noted by Susan Sontag who suggests, ‘To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed, it means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge-and, therefore, like power’ (Sontag, 1979: 04). Jim Hubbard, a professor at Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, also makes this point in his essay Everyone is a Photographer (2013), suggesting, ‘For such people, the ability to tell their own stories and craft their own images remains a powerful and, sometimes, transformative experience’ (Hubbard, 2013). A substantial amount of visual artists working within communities at grass roots level do so as a way of avoiding sensationalist or voyeuristic modes of representation. These artists seek to achieve through collaboration a deeper form of understanding of the issues that are at the heart of societies problems. In doing so they investigate methods which might actively diminish the possibility of these issues formulating into situations of conflict or social injustice, situations which often lead to the further marginalization of these communities.
2.4 Information Old, Information New.
In contrast to autonomous artists and the working ideologies of traditional documentary and photojournalism, socially engaged visual artists must give careful considerations to the complex issues that inevitably arise whenever participants play an integral part in the formation of these projects. Copyright, anonymity, gender, race, inclusion, exclusion, and age are just some of the issues often encountered within social practice that artists need to address with extreme sensitivity and professionalism. The nature of this work can often mean that artists become familiar with guidelines provided within professions such as social care. Grant Kester makes this point suggesting ‘the community artist is being positioned as a kind of social service provider’ (Kester, 2004: 138). This implies that artists working in this capacity must bring a new set of skills not found in traditional forms of visual representation. For example, they will frequently plan these interventions months in advance, combining any statistical data that might inform the direction of these projects. In some cases provide support mechanisms and teaching programs that can be used in these communities after they have completed their work. In short, they do not just capture images to be added to the millions of images already available relating to issues of this kind. Working within the context of social practice, visual artists will cede authorship and construct collective meaning by encouraging participants to move between various communication systems and disciplines. For example, participants are often encouraged to combine their own testimony with images they have produced, or with those of the artist, as a way of democratizing the construct and forming narratives that are not based entirely on the artists autonomous vision. In this respect, both artists and participants become authors.
2.6 One Voice Among Many
During the nineteenth century the notion of The Author was one that portrayed him as highly revered creative genius diligently writing individual masterpieces. The Author was seen as a solitary figure that gained a high status within the community due to the text he produced, this text would then be gifted to the reader. In his seminal Post-Structuralist text, The Death of the Author (1978), Roland Barthes reduces the role of The Author to that of The Scripter. In doing so, Barthes likens the role of the author to that of an empty vessel and one who exists only to produce text, and has no authority to subjectively explain that text because words cannot produce a single theological meaning (Barthes, 1978: 4). Barthes further suggests that the focus of any text should be shifted away from the Author and more importance given to the role of the reader. He believes that any text can only become unified when it reaches its destination, the reader. By his account, no author can make claim to producing any original text because all text is gathered and assembled from thousands of cultures around the world (Barthe, 1978: 6). His concept of authorship no longer applies to literary figures alone, and within the context of social practice it is now relevant to all artists who cede varying degrees of authorship. This ceding of authorship is also something Barthes refers to when he states, ‘the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author’ (Barthes, 1978: 6). In his essay Author as Producer (1934) Walter Benjamin suggests that authors working within artistic disciplines should renounce autonomy and become part of the class struggle they are comment on in the work they produce. He suggests that artists should use their influence to encourage others to take a more active role in their own desire for political and social change. Artists have an obligation to use their talent on behalf of the proletariats struggling against dominant bourgeois classes (Benjamin, 1998: 101). According to Benjamin, they should do this by producing work which directly relates to the political and social context of that particular period of time, and take an active role in helping citizens who they claim to champion, he suggests, ‘The operative writers mission is not to report but to fight; not to assume the spectator's role but to intervene actively (Benjamin, 1998: 88). Socially engaged artists have clearly taken up this call by using their voice as one amongst many, those of the participants. They use their influence and knowledge to encourage people within marginalized communities to take an interest in their own political and cultural destiny. They allow themselves become Interlocutors within the participatory projects they produce.
2.7 Image as Prompt
The combined use of images, testimony, text and photo elicitation techniques can assist both artist and participants in the construction of meaning that would not have been realized through the use of one of these methods alone. The value given to this process of Transmediation can help participants translate the understanding of an idea or concept by employing one artistic discipline to inform another, thereby assisting participants in their own form of self-representation and agency. Visual artists will often employ photo elicitation techniques whereby images are used as a way of prompting participants to expand on experiences, generating information or knowledge that would not have been uncovered otherwise. For example, whilst conducting field work in Latin America, researcher Fadwa el Guindi (1998) Find project, conducted an interview using images, in one image the participant pointed to a church alter and made a comment. This comment led to a prolonged discussion, the outcome of that discussion is noted by Guindi who states, ‘This comment led to an extended discussion revealing rich data on various aspects of Christmas and Easter-related rituals and myths’ (Guindi, 1998: 477). The positive effect of these techniques and the importance given to the role of participants is noted by Douglas harper who suggests ‘photo elicitation [can] be regarded as a postmodern dialogue based on the authority of the subject rather than the researcher’ (Harper, 1998: 24-41). The use of images as a form of information gathering becomes particularly helpful in marginalized communities where education standards can be well below average and participants are unable to use the written word as a form of expression. John Collier first coined the term photo elicitation in the mid twentieth century; Collier was a researcher who used images as a way of gathering information from communities of mixed ethnic origins. He conducted interviews using images and discovered that these interviews produced information that was far more informative than those conducted in a traditional manner. Commenting on the positive outcomes he achieved through photo interviewing, Collier suggests ‘This was its compelling effect upon the informant, its ability to prod latent memory, to stimulate and release emotional statements about the informants life’ (Collier, 1957: 858).
Photo elicitation can be especially effective when trying to construct meaning from the past experiences of participants. The connection between images and memory is something John Berger reflects on when he suggests ‘The thrill found in a photograph comes from the onrush of memory, this is obvious when it’s a picture of something we once knew’ (Berger, 1992: 192). Berger suggests that people often forget both good and bad past experiences and photographs have the ability to prompt individuals into remembering aspects of their lives frequently forgotten. The information gathered by viewing images (with help from interpreters) can be far more informative than that which is gathered by dialogue alone, especially in cases where language barriers become a limiting factor in interviews. Taking images, discussing images, teaching others to make images, these are all acts of democracy. Visual artists are more than aware of the ubiquitous nature of photography, even within underdeveloped countries. They understand that there is a certain familiarity with the photographic medium and use photography to encourage open dialogue amongst participants. They understand that the image has always, and continues to have a certain status not given to other forms of communication. This point is made by Susan Mesieles who suggests ‘I think photography has a huge potential to expand a circle of knowledge. There’s a reality that we are all the more linked globally and we have to know about each other. Photography gives us that opportunity (Mesiles, 2010).
2.8 The Politics of Community
Concepts of community such as understanding through dialogue and shared experience, are of paramount importance to socially engaged artists when trying to connect with collaborators in the creation of socially engaged projects. The task of trying to define exactly what community means can sometimes be elusive and constantly prone to subjectivity or misinterpretation. This is noted by Grant Kester who states ‘An analysis of community-based public art must begin with the vexing question of how to define community itself ’ (Kester, 2004: 129). This point is very note worthy when one considers that communities can differ greatly from each other depending on their social framework and geographical location. For instance, a socially engaged artist choosing to work with a community based in New York would usually require a different set of working principles to one working within a very underdeveloped country. Traditionally, exchanges between artists and communities were based on the assumption that a given community was in need of empowerment or education, and the contributing artist was financially, intellectually and creatively in a position to supply that empowerment (Kester, 2004: 128). This assumption emphasizes the importance of a shared authorship over authoritative top down interventions.
According to Grant Kester, Jean Luc Nancy, in The Inoperative Community (1991) challenges this conventional concept of what community means. Kester suggests that Nancys ideas concerning community are not based on the concept of individuals coming together ‘through the mutual recognition of a shared essence’ (Kester, 2004: 154). He further suggests Nancy’s concept of community creation is one based on people as Singularities rather than individuals, adding that Nancys philosophy regarding the concept of community is grounded in a skepticism for totalitarian forces and the idea of a fictive mass identity, such as one observed in the idea of German-ness during the Nazi regime (Kester, 2004: 154). Nancy suggests that when we act as singularities we accept our mutability rather than deny it. Failure to recognize the differences that are inherent to the human condition can create anxiety through a belief that we should be dependent on each other. This anxiety can lead to closed intolerant regimes such as Fascism, or what Nancy terms Essentialist societies. Further, he also suggests that by acting as singularities and accepting people can survive outside of this essentialist community, we can create a common bond that strengthens communities through the creation of a sense of Finiteness (Nancy, 1991: 67). In a state of finitude, we are free to reject the tendency to constantly measure ourselves against others and resist the temptation to perpetually push our individual egos to the fore (Nancy, 2004: 155). Nancy suggests that we must all recognise ourselves as individuals before we can join together as singular beings and truly consider ourselves a cohesive society, Nancy states:
Community means, consequently, that there is no singular being, without another singular being, and that there is, therefore, what might be called, in a rather inappropriate idiom, an originary or ontological ‘sociality’ that in its principle extends far beyond the simple theme of man as a social being (Nancy, 1991: 66).
In her essay New Communities (2011) Nina Montmann suggests communities are formed in multiple social situations. She questions what citizens expect from being part of the concept any community, and suggests that the current surge of interest in the arts regarding the concept is due to a redefining of how community is now experienced. According to Montmann, a redefinition is needed due to the changes that can be observed in the globalized working relationships that have developed within Europe since 1989. She argues that Governments in Europe use these relationships to imply a new era of closeness between nations but continue to ‘corroborate or extend old power structures in underhand ways (Montmann, 2011: 65). It is worth noting here that in 2008 the Irish electorate voted no to the Lisbon Treaty and were subsequently branded ingrates and asked to vote again. She suggests the traditional notions of what constitutes communities such as solidarity and belonging must now be challenged, and that artists working within social practice seek to achieve this by investigating ways in which social formations are constructed within the context of the historical and political. The way in which artists question notions of community and agency can be seen in the work of artists within the exhibition titled, If we cant get it together: Artists rethinking the (mal)function of communities (2008). This exhibition was curated by Montmann for The Power plant Gallery and included the work of artists such as Egle Budvytyte and Hassan Khan, who, according to Montmann, seek to expose the malfunctions in contemporary communities by providing alternative narratives of the social. These malfunctions are manifest in the way that communication systems designed to connect communities sometimes inadvertently alienate individuals (Montman, 2008: 114). In her video piece, Secta (2006), Egle Budvytyte imagines a future open source secret community whereby traditional notions of unity amongst individuals are abandoned in favor of them becoming singularities within that community. Participants become loosely connected by aimless tasks performed in public. These tasks are undefined and meaningless and set out the challenge the essentialist notion of community discussed earlier in this paper by Jean Luc Nancy in The Inoperative Community (1991). In Host (2008) Hassan Khan seeks to expose the theme of isolation amongst individuals within the virtual community of television viewers. For his project, Hassan captured a mobile phone image of a television screen depicting a TV presenter on a quiz show, this image was taken through three processes. Khan produced a drawing of the image, etched it, and finally screen printed it. This process enabled Khan to omit a number of features from the original image including the stage set around the presenter and the phone numbers given for audience participation. This image was then re-presented to the public having been completely removed from its original context, ‘rendering the shallow one-way communication with an invisible audience in an enigmatic moment of self-exposure (Montmann, 2008: 115).
2. 9 The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?
Claire Bishop and Dr Anthony Downey are both highly skeptical of the obvious similarities they observe between the ideals of social practice and the rhetoric regarding art provided by neo-liberal government agencies. Bishop criticises the manifesto of The New Labour Government in the United Kingdom (1997-2010) that sought to push forward a strategy whereby the methods employed in socially engaged art could be incorporated into government programs that sought to minimize crime, increase employment and boost aspiration within communities. According to Bishop, the rhetoric surrounding New Labors call for social inclusion through art should be regarded as a cynical ploy to avoid further problems within the welfare system (Bishop, 2012: 14). Bishop further suggests that fundamental aspects of art production such as research and artistic experimentation were omitted from Labours plans for social inclusion, she states:
Participation became an important buzzword in the social inclusion discourse, but unlike its function in contemporary art (where it denotes self-realisation and collective action), for New Labour it effectively referred to the elimination of disruptive individuals. (Bishop, 2012: 13)
Dr Anthony Downey also has reservations regarding the neo-liberal push for a more inclusive society through participation in art programs. He raised these concerns during a key-note speech he gave at the Arts and Civil Symposium in Cork entitled For the Common Good (2011). According to Downey, the recent severe cuts implemented on welfare services in the United Kingdom and Ireland and the withdrawal of funding by corporate sponsors to the arts, have led to a situation whereby civil society has had to make up the shortfall in the process of sustaining social cohesion. Downey suggests civil society, ‘is understood here as a nexus of community-based and community organized activity that is not undertaken by government or commercial, for-profit businesses’ (Downey, 2011). His primary concern lies within the extent that collaborative artists provide services that enable a form of neo-liberal devolution shift responsibility for welfare issues away from governments onto underfunded communities. He concludes his speech by suggesting collaborative art has within its power the ability to ‘address key concerns and current debates concerning the politics of resistance and the ethics of community…….and expose the moral consensuality and ideological forms of normative ethics at the heart of neo-liberalist policies’ (Downey, 2011).
The issues raised here by Bishop and Downey draw attention to the complex ethical concerns that might arise when socially engaged artists are in need of funding for projects based within the community. Artists have to eat, and it is not unimaginable that ethical standards concerning artistic interventions might diminish slightly due to the promise of a large funding budget. It is also reasonable to assume that very few interventions could expect to have any sort of positive impact on a community without funding of some sort. This point is made by Guillamet and Roca when they suggest ‘we must not forget that those (artists, educators, etc) that promote this type of community experience are dependent on public funding or private initiatives involved in the development of these activities’ (Guillamet, Roca, 2014). Grant Kester also comments on funding issues when he suggests that ‘There is pressure through the public funding system for the arts in the UK to create at least the allusion of engaging a broader demographic of the population’ (Kester, 2006). He further suggests that due to the use of Lottery funding for the arts in Britain the government must be seen to make a connection between where the income is generated and on what it is being spent – ‘good causes’ (Kester, 2006).
Wendy Ewald is an American born visual artist and educator working within the framework of social practice. Her work combines elements of photography, sociology and ethnography. Ewald has worked in this egalitarian capacity for over thirty years, frequently ceding authorship as a way of giving agency to participants within her projects. She has succeeded in working democratically across a broad spectrum of diverse communities; and her work frequently investigates the ability of images and language to create bonds between groups according to race, class and gender. She has been successful in exporting her working methodology across many countries and has been described as an artist in an anthropologists skin (Neri, 2006: 32). Ewald has worked within community settings for over forty years. She began to develop her collaborative working approach when she was offered a job working with Naskapi children on an Indian reservation in Canada. During this period she asked the participating children to photograph aspects of life on the reservation. Within these images Ewald discovered completely uninhibited approaches to image capture. She reflects on this when she comments ‘they had a raw power that I had yet to see in photographs. Their work led me to wonder if I could consciously merge the subject of a picture and the photographer and create a new picture-making process’ (Ewald, 2006: 30). Ewald began to teach in elementary schools and began forming an educational framework that sought to allow collaborators express themselves through a combination of recorded dialogue, imagery and written work. Her work offers an alternative pedagogical working method closely linked to the teachings of Brazilian educator Paulo Friere. Jim Hubbard comments on the way in which participatory photography is particularly suited to the Frierian model of empowerment through education, he states:
Freire’s education for critical consciousness promotes individual change, community quality of life, and policy changes aimed at achieving social equity. Photography is a natural medium for the application of Freires ideas, as it lends itself to helping a community reflect back upon itself to reveal the everyday social and political realities that influence their lives (Hubbard, 2014: 12)
In 1989, Ewald was invited for a two-week artist residency at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies in Durham, North Carolina. This led to the publication of two instructional books based on Ewalds teaching methods I Wanna Take Me a Picture (2002) and Literary and Justice Through Photography: A Classroom Guide (2011). This residency also led to the formation of the Literacy Through Photography programme; set up as collaboration between the artist and teachers of Durham public school for the purpose of an educational teaching platform that combines visual and literacy skills. As an artist she negotiates the complexities that arise when using images and text as a form of representation, self-reflection and communication. She achieves this by allowing the collective voice of the participants within her work come to the fore. For example, in her body of work Towards a promised Land (2005), she combines both written and recorded testimony with images supplied by participants as a way of informing the viewer about the social and political situations affecting these participants. This approach shifts the power from photographer to participants and allows them comment on their current status as members of society. This point is made by Katherine Hyde in her essay Portraits and Collaborations: a reflection on the work of Wendy Ewald (2005) who suggests ‘Ewalds collaborative approach has implications for the power dynamics inherent to the process of using words and images to represent others’ (Hyde, 2005: 179). Towards a Promised Land documents the artists eighteen-month project with twenty-two children who had recently arrived to the seaside town of Margate in the UK. This project was informed by the difficulties that were facing these children, most of them asylum seekers. Margate is know as a first point of call and holding center for refugees seeking to gain permanent entry into the UK. Some of these children had arrived in Margate having fled worn torn countries such as Angola. Others were British nationals relocating from other parts of the UK in search of a better life. Ewald worked in a collaborative capacity with these participants by combining photographic training, interviews and photo elicitation. Ewalds work blurs the boundaries between photographer and subject, and for this body of work she combined her own images with those produced by the participants. The way in which her work allows for shared authorship and the democratic nature of its final presentation to the public is noted by Weinberg and Stahel who suggest ‘when Ewald’s images are placed on equal footing with those of her students, we experience her voice as one among many, (Weinberg and Stahel, 2000: 10).
Ewalds working approach was used as a way of teaching the participants to explore their own worlds. It enabled them to reflect/comment on experiences they had encountered on the journeys that had brought them to Margate. It encouraged them to embrace new possibilities. Ewald gives an insight into her work and the effect it had on the participating children, she suggests ‘Since visual evidence of their former lives existed only in their imaginations, the children saw our workshop as an opportunity to reinvent themselves by making new photographs’ (Ewald, 2006). This work was displayed in Margate as series of large banner sized images in 2005. Commenting on the choice of image size Ewald suggests it was ‘to make them visible in a monumental way around the town that would make them interesting and provocative’ (Ewald, 2006: 144). Some of these images were single portraits and others were displayed as triptychs. Site-specific locations in Margate were carefully chosen by both the artist and the participants to increase the impact they would have on the viewer. In figures 0.2 and 0.3 we see images of Mariam and Christian respectively. Mariam is a young Egyptian girl and Christian is from The Democratic Republic of Congo. These images were produced by the artist and include hand written texts taken from the translated testimony of both children. The text on Mariams image (Figure 0.2) is a line from an interview given by the participant and refers to one of her first memories of arriving in Britain, it reads ‘the first thing I saw was the road covered with a flock of pigeons’ (Mariam, 2006: 94). Other segments from this text leave the reader in no doubt as to the precarious situation these children found themselves, Mariam states ‘ I brought some clothes and some memories. I brought my necklace and a certificate of distinction from school. I left behind my relatives and my father’ (Mariam, 2006: 94).
Combining text and imagery is a common feature of Ewalds work that promotes collective authorship between artist and participant. Commenting on this approach the artist suggests ‘I looked at each kids interview with him or her and we picked out some lines that best described his or her journey’ (Ewald, 2006: 150). In figures 0.4 and 0.5 we see examples of the way in which the finished work was displayed in Margate. In figure 0.4 we observe a set of three images displayed as a triptych. One of these images reveals personal items belonging to Christian, who was awaiting news on his asylum status. The decision to ask participants to include personal items in one of the images proved to be very informative and give viewers an insight into the participants recent history, it also highlighted the differences in the political and cultural backrounds of the participants, commenting on the effects of this process, Ewald states:
I asked them to identify objects they’d brought with them when they moved…..it was fairly easy for the British kids, because the things they had were precious objects. For the most part, the asylum-seeking kids only had more practical things, like a suitcase full of clothes. Some felt that they didn’t have anything that could be used (Ewald, 2006: 145)
This process was continued for all the triptychs included in the project, also included in these triptychs are two further images, one of which was a frontal portrait and one showing the back of the participants head. Again, there are specific reasons behind the artists critical thinking regarding her presentation techniques, she suggests, ‘I took close-ups of their faces and the backs of their heads, so that from the wall they look out to sea or inland to their new lives. Margate is their promised land’ (Ewald, 2005). In an interview given to Michael Morris describing her working process Ewald suggests that changing the dynamic of the participants from statistics to people was something she thought about constantly ‘I thought about that a lot when I was photographing them, about working against the process of objectification’ (Ewald, 2006: 147). In Towards a Promised Land Ewald has succeeded in presenting the participants in a fair and informative manner (the project also involved an exhibition of the participants work in Margate). It has also highlighted how marginalized communities working together with an artist can be represented/represent themselves outside a sensationalist visual trope. In terms of assessment Towards a Promised Land is difficult to quantify as having directly effected any real social change. However, if repairing the social bond means taking small steps to achieve a bigger goal, this project could be seen as a step in the right direction. Collaborative interventions such as Ewalds benefit not only the participants directly involved in the work. The way in this work is conceived, produced and presented suggests that one would need to be completely apathetic not to at least question its purpose. The effects felt by the wider public in Margate and beyond because of this particular intervention can perhaps be explained in a comment Ewald offers. When asked about the feedback she received from Towards a Promised Land (2006), she states, ‘One local shopkeeper explained that the project was important because Margate is made up of so many people. She thought that people grumbled about change, but once they understood something new, they welcomed it’ (Ewald, 2006: 152).
Zana Briski is a visual artist who became interested in photography the age of nine. She is a graduate of the International Centre of Photography and founder of Kids with Cameras (2002), a participatory photography agency aimed at teaching children throughout the world to utilise photography as a form of self-expression. As part of their mission statement Kida with Cameras (KWC) suggest ‘we use photography to capture the imaginations of children, to empower them, building confidence, self esteem and hope’ (KWC, 2014). In 1997 Briski began working with prostitutes living in the red light district of Calcutta. This was to lead to a participatory photography project based on their children titled Born into Brothels (2003). The way in which these images offer an alternative to the stereotypical imagery so often associated with marginalized communities, can be found in the subject matter of the photographs produced by the participating children for this project. In Fig 0.6 we see a self-portrait of one of the participants (Manoni aged 11) and in Figs 0.7 to 10 we observe a series of images captured by the participants over the course of the project, a show aspects of their lives not typically seen in the media. However, a quick search on Google Images with the key words slum, India and children will produce a substantial amount of images similar to those in Figs 11 to 13. This type of imagery only helps to reinforce the stereotyping of people in marginalized communities. Almost all of the children involved in this project have gone on to pursue education in a number of areas, most of them excelling in studies such as filmmaking and fashion design. KWC was established as a direct result of the collaborative process observed between Briski and the participants for Born into Brothels. This project led to the production of a documentary of the same name that won a best documentary award at the Academy Awards (2005) and best documentary audience award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. KWC is now a well established participatory photography and educational agency. It has raised considerable amounts of money from a combination of touring exhibitions (where the participants images are sold), fundraising events and film rights. In a statement on the agencies web site it is suggested that money raised from these endeavors will be used for the education and future development of children living within the red light district of Calcutta. There has been much criticism leveled at this project. In her essay Human Rights Markets and Born into Brothels (2005) Sarah Brouillette frames the work within the ‘increasingly prevalent and transformative intertwining of the human rights market (which packages and sells causes to potential donors, investors or consumers) with the human rights culture market’ (Brouillette, 2011). Brouillette rightly points out that this type of collaborative activity between artists and marginalized communities has become increasingly popular. She suggests that although this project should be applauded for its ability to use art to better the lives of the participants, some of these encounters have become big business and interlinked with media companies. These observations suggest that the ethical concerns that should be given to any collaborative intervention might need extra attention in situations such as these. Commenting on the documentary film of this project, Brouillette further states:
For now it is important to note that, despite it, the film aggrandises Briski considerably, presenting her efforts as a dramatic solo endeavour, and constructing her in the familiar image of the heroic white rescuer who saves helpless others from underdevelopment. (Brouillette, 2011)
This dissertation has been an investigation into the role of artists who use collaborative and participatory practices. It has outlined some of the art historical movements that are viewed to be the precursors to what is now referred to as Social Practice. Chapter one consisted of a review of the literature relating to social practice which allowed us to assess some of the arguments to be found in the discourse relating to the credibility and assessment of art which is produced in this way. This chapter suggested that the perceived lack of aesthetic in some of this work has proved to be a highly contentious issue. It suggests that Claire Bishop has called for deeper investigation into the claim by Grant Kester that the aesthetic in collaborative interventions is located in the discursive exchanges that take place between artists and participants in these interventions ‘even though it fails on the level of art’ (Bishop 2006). Chapter two provides us with a discourse explaining key concepts such as authorship and community that are to be found in art practices of this kind. This chapter also provides us with a discussion relating to visual artists who employ working strategies found within social practice, explaining how artists use these strategies as a way of connecting with marginalized communities. Chapter three paid particular attention to two visual artists who frame their respective practices within these parameters. It provides us with a critique of two particular projects where shared authorship between artists and participants for the completion of this work was of paramount importance to the artists. This critique suggests that both artists provide alternative visual modes of representation and agency to people within communities. By way of project examples, it provides us with evidence that would support the claim made by this dissertation that Wendy Ewald and Zana Briski are both successful in their attempts to effect positive social change within communities. In his essay, The Rebirth of the Author (2005) Nicholas Rombes suggests that every citizen now has it within their grasp to become an author suggesting ‘Roland Barthes famous prediction about the death of the author has come to pass, but not because the author is nowhere, but rather because she is everywhere…….We are all authors today’ (Rombes, 2005). What Rombes is suggesting here is that we all have ideas, and these ideas can now be expressed easily and quickly through new forms of communication such as blogs and websites. This is of course a highly contentious assumption, there are many citizens living within slums with great ideas and no access to basic nessetitys such as clean water. However, what these citizens do have is the right to become authors, and this is why the work of Ewald and Briski is so important. They help in the provision of that right. Photojournalism and documentary photography will continue to provide society with an honorable service. Many photographers working within these vocations have died providing that service and for this society should always be grateful. The purpose of this dissertation was never to demonise these photographic practices, one only has to observe the work of Gilles Peress or Sebastio Selgado to realise that documentary photographers are adapting new ways of approaching this type of work. It is also worth noting that Eugenie Dolberg who was responsible for a very successful participatory project titled Open Shutters Iraq (2006) began her career as a photojournalist. On June 8th 1972 Nick Ut captured one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century (Fig 14). This image is said to have been partly responsible for the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. However, a quick search of the Internet will reveal recent images of conflict which are far more graphic in detail, none of which are going to change much of anything. Visual artists working with participants in situations such as conflict and poverty do not seek to capture the one image that will change how society views people in marginalized situations. They seek to converse with them, for them and through them. They seek to give them the confidence to speak for themselves. How one chooses to use ones voice is entirely up to oneself. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for redemption (Friere, 1996: 36).
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Figure 0.1 Veteran of the war in Northern Ireland Facing the Corner 2013
Figure 0.2 Mariam Born 1995, Egypt: Arrived in Margate 2004
Figure 0.3 Christian Born 1995, Democratic Republic of Congo: Arrive Margate 2004
Figure 0.4 Installation Triptych 1 2006
Figure 0.5 Installation Triptych 2 2006
Fig 0.6 Mamuni, 11 Self Portrait 2003