Our assignment for week 1 of Art and Social Practice was to engage at least two other people in conversation about a statement or question for at least 15 minutes and reflect on this afterwards. I felt quite anxious about it as I’m naturally shy and I didn’t know who or how to ask, so I distanced it slightly by asking for volunteers on Facebook. I enlisted three people that way, which would have been enough, but a few others got involved and in the end we were seven (all women, of different ages). The participants knew it was to do with my art course but not what we would be talking about.
Because there were so many of us, we moved venue from a public place to a room in someone’s home. The atmosphere there is very spacious, peaceful and light, whereas the original venue might have been busier and noisier, and we would have been in closer physical proximity. Coffee and cake were provided. The conversation was relaxed and respectful and went both wide and deep – I think this was to do with the people and also the place.
We chatted generally first and then I gave everyone a slip of paper, with a statement and a quote:
Access to art and art-making is vital to sustain a compassionate, resilient and attractive community
“Arts are not the icing on the cake, but much more the yeast, and such a significant language for change.”
Mallika Sarabhai, Global Agenda Council on the Role of the Arts in Society 2013
I deliberately mentioned that I had decided to make the statement an assertion and not a question, to avoid a sense that we were looking for ‘an answer’. I had also considered a number of other subjects, some of which might appear more immediately relevant to our local community, but after some helpful input from Frances, I decided to go with a subject that I personally feel passionate about.
We talked for around two hours, both directly about the subject, and branching away and returning to it. The discussion included art theory, education, creativity, social needs, skill-sharing, emotion, memory; people laughed, argued, questioned, listened, told stories and spoke honestly about their lives and their own relationship with creativity (which it was suggested might be a more helpful or acceptable term than ‘art and art-making’, the phrase I had used).
- I was surprised by how the time passed – to me it seemed to pass quickly and mostly the conversation felt effortless. I think that was because of the setting and the motivation of the people involved. It would be interesting to vary the people or the venue to try and find out.
- I am not at all sure that such a conversation could be placed anywhere in the genre of ‘conversation as art’ which was the context of the exercise. It was carefully set up, but so is Prime Minister’s question time, or a book club meeting. I did begin to visualise it at some point as a kind of web of interaction forming as people passed the threads of their thoughts from one to another. But I don’t think that’s quite the same thing!
- I mentioned at the beginning that I would be reflecting on it here, so to that extent there was awareness of a public aspect, but I didn’t record it and it wasn’t public. Publicness is a common feature of all the ‘art conversations’ I’ve researched, for example this dialogue on Ageing by Swansea Digital Storytelling, or Mark Rautenbach’s Menditations on the Education System. However, I think ours might have been a more superficial conversation had it been public.
- Taking this further, if a painter paints for themself alone, is it art, without a viewer (this question was asked, and opinions differed)? In a conversation, this question doesn’t arise in quite the same way because the human interchange is always present. If the conversation has any transforming impact on the participants, do they become in some way performers to an audience of themselves, their dialogue enlarging and critiquing their understanding? If they carry that impact outward into community life, whether intentionally or incidentally, there is a wider social outcome regardless of the private or public nature of the event.
- As we conversed we started to speak of ways to actually develop or revive creative activity in the community and engage practically with local issues. More ideas about potentially sharing resources and about wider collaborations have also been articulated since. Although the process was the focus, there may also be a product – something that was identified as an important aspect of an art project for some participants.
- I thought I might be able to make some observations about group dynamics but I have difficulty ‘reading’ people well enough to analyse the interaction. I was impressed by the high level of turn-taking and the way disagreements managed to be animated yet generous. Pablo Helguera (2011) lists ‘learning how to moderate a conversation’ among the skills needed by a community artist. That’s not a skill I have mastered yet, but on this occasion it was unnecessary.
- Jeff Kelley (1995) describes collaboration as a place where ‘personal and social memory are beheld as resources … and … the vernacular multiplicity of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic difference is explored, smelled, tasted, and embraced.’ In a very small way I think that’s what was happening. Though subsets of the participants socialise regularly, as a whole this group had not met together before, and it included some significant differences in personality and outlook. Monica Szewczyk (2009) suggests that engaging in conversation ‘ultimately runs the risk of redefining not only the “other,” but us as well.’ I think even, or perhaps especially, in a small and relatively cohesive community that kind of disruption of expectations is important and one or two participants have mentioned experiencing something of that kind in the course of the event.
- Because I have a poor memory, I have already ‘lost’ some of what was said and by whom. If the purpose of the conversation had lain beyond itself, I should have recorded it in some way. It would be interesting to switch on a recording device partway through a conversation – would that make a noticeable difference to how open people are? It would also be interesting to ask the participants to comment on what they remember as significant – a kind of collaborative recollection.
- Even if I remember every word, my understanding of what was said and what happened is necessarily limited by my own perceptions. This could be a danger or a feature of an artist-led project, depending on whose interpretation is intended to shape the work.
- A similar but subtly different assertion was shared, synchronistically, on Facebook today: "Arts and crafts is a powerful force in contributing to healthy and vibrant communities" (from Jasmin Materialised Craftivism, who runs a South African craftivism group). I’m interested in exploring the differences and similarities between social practice art and craftivism, either during or after the course.
Helguera, P., (2011), Education for Socially Engaged Art, New York: Jorge Pinto Books, xv.
Kelley, J. (1995), ‘Common Work’, in Suzanne Lacy (ed.), Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, Seattle: Bay Press, 148
Szewczyk, M., (2009) ‘Art of Conversation, Part 1’, e-flux, vol 3, 02/2009, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/art-of-conversation-part-i/, accessed 13/09/2013