My PhD research (and previous work) explored the relationship between institutions, artists and a public engaged in participatory settings, specifically looking at how conflict was an integral element of making art. Without conflict, working in participatory settings would amount to nothing more than convivial distractions. In other words, we can’t just ‘engage’ with people: we have to do something more with those relationships/people/communities in order for it to be art. For me, the art emerges via conflict, and I define conflict as those opportunities and experiences that make us question and analyse our place within our world.(28) Art can only occur when difficult questions can be asked; be those questions of aesthetics, of politics, of society, or of the individual. Importantly, the opportunity for groups, individuals and organisations to ask themselves important questions cannot exist without infrastructural support. In short, when working with people in the public realm, socially engaged art cannot occur unless there is appropriate support to develop relationships with parties, to develop trust with groups/individuals, and to open up a context wherein people want to explore how their edges and boundaries rub up against each other. This ‘productive conflict’ cannot exist without inter- and intra-social networks, cannot exist without institutions to build and sustain relationships when the (temporary) artist arrives and leaves.
This is the issue at the heart of this text, and the crux of current socially engaged practices: artists are now generally commissioned by institutions to enter into temporary relationships with communities: a three-month residency, or 70 days over the course of a year, or an ‘on-going’ relationship with a community that isn’t the artist’s own, etc. There are myriad examples, all structurally different, but fundamentally all made of the same Gordian’s Knot: the ‘community’ is an amorphous, changing, heterogeneous mass… and the artist is temporary. To function, the artist therefore needs a host like a parasite needs a body from which to draw strength, but also resources. And, as well as materials and/or resources, the participatory artist needs networks, contacts, local insight, etc. These are the materials from which the participatory artists develop their ‘art’, from which they are able to begin to develop difficult and important questions. And it’s simple: if we can’t get to the point of asking those difficult questions, we don’t get to make art.(29)
As I say above: this does not mean that an element of such participatory art can’t be temporary – it can, and there are some excellent benefits in temporary artworks with people. See, for instance, Incidental’s 2013 work Museum of Lies,(30) or the South London Gallery’s Shop of Possibilities,(31) or even Deveron Projects’ The Town Is the Venue methodology.(32) All of these have an institution to ‘hold’ and host a visiting artist, and the infrastructure for an new artist to drop into that community is in place before they arrive in order for an ‘artwork’ to occur. In other words, without that infrastructure, there is only ‘engagement’, but no ‘art’.
28 – I do not mean violent conflict, but rather an experience that is socially or individually uncomfortable and causes a deeper reflection about the world around us is organised. For more information, see Schrag, A. (2016). Agonistic Tendencies: the role of productive conflict within institutionally supported participatory practices. (PhD) Newcastle: Newcastle University.
29 – I would also argue that ‘social change’ can only occur after those questions are asked. Any change requires a shift in thinking, and that shift is never comfortable. For example, one does not stop smoking without coming to understand on some level the true health complications, and that is not a pleasant understanding to reach. However, I would also argue that is not the artists job to guide those changes, only to start them.
30 – See http://www.theincidental.com/museum-lies (Available online – Accessed 29 December 2016.)
31 – See http://www.southlondongallery.org/page/theshopofpossibilities (Available online – Accessed 29 December 2016.)
32 – See https://www.deveron-projects.com/the-town-is-the-venue/ (Available online –Accessed 29 December 2016.)