Feeling Unsettled by Social Making, in a good way

The Social Making symposium was devised by Take a Part in partnership with Plymouth University and hosted by Radiant Space.

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There were several overarching themes that evolved as the Social Making symposium rolled out over two days. Those relating to unsettling, succession and time caught my attention. Arnstein’s Ladder was also discussed, there’s an article in response to that on the a-n website, here.

The range of speakers was comprehensive, offering glimpses of the many ways that socially engaged practices are now being delivered internationally. The very nature of successful socially engaged practice is that it becomes deeply, and permanently, embedded in people and places. Take a Part has been doing that in Plymouth since 2009.

Dr. Sarah Bennet (Interim Head of School at Plymouth University) would no doubt refer to Take a Part as an ‘upstart organisation’ as opposed to a startup – they began as a small group with a big idea. The term upstart set the tone, flagging up the need for socially engaged practice to challenge existing new-business models, because not everything is about economy. As the symposium developed and more speakers presented, there appeared to be a growing tension between the notion of unsettling and that of providing sanctuary. How might one create a safe place for people who may have, themselves, arrived in a very unsettled condition?

Dr. Kelichi Nnoaham, Director of Public Health, shared his story of how he grew up listening to hip-hop and rap music, and on entering Cambridge University he had to learn about classical music. That was evidently very unsettling for him and very likely for the fellow students that heard his favourite music for the first time. He referred to this as being ‘a tough war’ which informed his passion for community empowerment and drive for inclusivity.

Michael Bridgewater, engineer and Take a Part Board member, used the term “community interferer”. It’s a good description, unsettling and agitating must have the capacity to constructively re-settle after the event, it’s not just about providing economic validation. And it is messy.

Succession was a big subject at the symposium – how can socially engaged practice withdraw from communities and leave a sustainable legacy that can continue what the artist-as-catalyst began? My article for a-n refers to the Arnstein’s Ladder model that seeks to create total accession through a series of processes, always with citizen control as the goal. I have my reservations whether or not the model works well within socially engaged art practice as it stands, but it could be adapted.

Other projects, such as Homebaked and Effevescent, described how they evolved over time. Time is imperative for succession to come to fruition. There were numerous crunchy little phrases, like “are public artworks empty symbols of civic pride”; “it’s peoples work, humble and messy” and “are indicators passive data, or the legacy of a sense of direction?” to mention a few.

There was a brilliant range of speakers present and it was a real coup to have Turner Prize winners Assemble there to end two days of fascinating discussion. By the end there was a real sense of these being exciting times for culture in Plymouth, both from the speakers and from the conversations in the gaps between. Whilst the audience were seated in the main hall to hear the presentations, there were plenty of networking opportunities, oiled by excellent hospitality by RumpusCosy.

Take A Part should have invited an estate agent to set up a stall – so many people were saying they want to live there. I don’t blame them, it’s a buzzing place to be.

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I was able to attend the Symposium thanks to a bursary from VASWVisual Arts South West is a network creating opportunities for artists, organisations and professionals to develop their practice, share ideas, knowledge & resources, and cultivate relationships.

 

 

 

Farewell to Place by Magdalena Jetelova – reflections from an abandoned phd about the sculpture trail

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(I have credited the photographers where I know who it was.)

I worked for the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust for several years and developed a fondness for Place by Magdalena Jetelova. Today Place (more commonly known locally as The Giants Chair) was dismantled and later in the week will be converted into charcoal, an ancient tradition used in the Forest of Dean. It completes the circle of this temporary artworks’ lifecycle.

The Sculpture Trust has considered the history of the sculpture respectfully and are following the wishes of the artist. Knowing that new artworks will be created using this recycled material is heartening and points in a positive way to the current growth of the trail. New commissions will be installed in the near future – you can read more about that on their website. I look forward to seeing them come to fruition.

And there’s a lovely film about Place here by Jamie Brightmore.

I’ve dug out a few photos I have on my drive – farewell to a work that was loved by many and will be missed.

This feels an apt time to dig out old files from my backup drive and revisit the drafts of the Phd I began about 8 years ago. It was a learning curve and a mistake for me and I conceded I would never complete it. It was about the Sculpture Trail.

I loved doing the research and was fascinated by many theories that related to ethnography,  encounter, public engagement, walking, cultural geography and of course contemporary socially engaged practice. So here are a few extracts – first one about Place and next a section about theories relating to ‘space and place’. I may dig out more soon – a bit like leafing through old family photos.

PHD EXTRACTS © CAROLYN BLACK 2015 – previously unpublished

Magdalena Jetelova elected to use timber in her construction. Following her visit to the forest in 1985, newly arrived in England from Czechoslavakia, Jetelova submitted a proposal for a huge chair to be positioned on a high viewing point looking out across the Cannop Valley. The area had recently been felled so was barren of trees and a special mound of earth was constructed to raise the sculpture high up and take it out of the way of the logging tracks, so as not to create an obstruction in the working forest. This ‘landscaping’ set a precedent and future maintenance plans took into consideration how the artworks were physically sited and the maintenance area around them required to be considered.

Rupert Martin writes eloquently in describing Place:

Place was not constructed on-site but made at the Sculpture Shed in Bristol, where the oak was delivered to and the joints constructed. The timber was then seasoned on-site in the forest for some six months before being erected using a 10 ton crane to move the limbs, which each weighed around four tons.

Entitled Place, the sculpture is a place both to walk to, and from which to survey the landscape. It is not just an object to look at, but with its skeletal construction, a portal, a gate through which the valley can be framed. It has become known as the ‘Giants Chair’, the throne of some creature whose domain is the forest. With its irregular gait it has the look of an animal traversing the land, and brings to mind the myths and fairytales of our childhood. It is also an almost abstract structure, with its rhythm of horizontals and verticals changing from each angle to form an asymmetrical composition. The character of the sculpture varies with each season, so that its harsh face in winter becomes benign and welcoming in summer. When first constructed it overlooked the devastation of a slope of recently felled trees, like an overlord surveying the scene of some battle. In summer the slope was clothed in pink foxgloves and soon, as the pine trees grow, a sea of green will break like waves at the foot of the chair. Comparisons have been made with Henry Moore’s King and Queen, placed on a hill slope above a lake in Dumfriesshire. With its human scale and figuration, Moore’s work has an unassuming intimacy and sense of human frailty and companionship. In its bold isolation and dramatic scale, Jetelova’s work has by contrast an awe inspiring grandeur. The work expresses some of the ideas which she developed out of the oppression in her native Czechoslavakia, where the monolithic state dominated every aspect of life. She has written that what fascinates her is “the possibility of expressing constant change in these objects”.

That change is provided by the changing nature of the forest.

 Rupert Martin

The particularities of space and place in public art practice

Not all public art is site or place specific, but both concepts have come to predominate and inform public art commissioning programmes. The concept of site-specificity has changed since it was first used in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s. According to Kwon, site-specificity originally emerged from minimalism:

Site-specific art was initially based on a phenomenological or experiential understanding of the site, defined primarily as an agglomeration of the actual physical attributes of a particular location…..(Kwon 2002:3)

Kwon describes how those conditions have shifted over the years and proposes that they have turned full-circle, but that now the location has changed from being that of the site to that of the artist. She suggests that this has come about partly through the nomadic nature of the artist. In response to international exhibiting opportunities, artists are required to visit places (more often than not cities) and respond to them, without sufficient opportunity to have a deep or meaningful engagement with those places. If the site is imperative to an artwork, and that artwork could not exist if it were removed from the site, it is inferred that the site itself is the author of the work, and without it the work becomes meaningless. Kwon describes this period as being when:

The uncontaminated and pure idealist space of dominant modernisms was radically displaced by the materiality of the natural landscape or the impure and ordinary space of the everyday. And the space of art was no longer perceived as a blank slate, a tabula rasa, but a real place. …Site-specific work in its earliest formation, then, focused on establishing an inextricable, indivisible relationship between the work and its site, and demanded the physical presence of the viewer for the work’s completion. (Kwon 2002:11)

The case of Serra’s Tilted Arc notoriously confronted these issues. Serra had been commissioned to create a public sculpture for the Federal Plaza in Washington, but when it was installed there was public outcry and demands were made for it to be removed or relocated. Kwon refers to a letter Serra wrote to the director of the Art-in-Architecture Program, who had commissioned this enormous steel sculpture – some 120 feet long – for the Federal Plaza in Washington. Serra stated in his letter that Tilted Arc was “commissioned and designed for one particular site: Federal Plaza. It is a site-specific work and as such not to be relocated. To remove the work is to destroy the work”. (Kwon 2002:12)

Kwon lists the following current variations on the theme of site-specific as including site-determined, site-orientated, site-conscious, site-responsive and site-related – note that the term specific is avoided. She suggests that the emergence of these terms in recent years indicates a return to the anti-idealist, anti-commercial site-specific practices of those early days, yet proceeds to suggest that the shift away from the original term site-specificity may be an attempt to:

….mark a difference from the artistic precedents of site-specificity whose dominant positivist formulations (the most well known being Richard Serra’s) are deemed to have reached a point of aesthetic and political exhaustion. (Kwon 2002:1)

Although Kwon refers to the fact that “site-specificity is here conceived as what art historian Deutsche has called an ‘urban-aesthetic’ or ‘spatial cultural’ discourse” (Kwon 2004, pg 2), her review of the development of contemporary site-specific practices touches on several things that also relate to commissioning in a rural context. Site-specific art grew out of land-art, which sought to reject galleries, institutions and commercial markets. But gradually galleries and institutions adopted and modified site-specificity to meet their own needs, and some artists responded by making site-specificity the content of the work. Artists such as Buren and Bochner installed artworks in galleries that challenged them as containers of art and, in the case of Buren, his work Within And Beyond The Frame (1973), literally broke out of the gallery into the public space of the street beyond. At the same time other artists and curators were looking beyond the galleries, turning their backs on the urban and working outside.

During the late 1980’s performance artists also began to respond to the site-specific, creating temporary interventions often in non-art sites. Kwon describes this period as being when:

…the site of art begins to diverge from the literal space of art and the physical condition of a specific location recedes as the primary element in the conception of a site. (Kwon 2004:24)

These temporary interventions abandoned the formal boundaries of sculpture, performance, theatre and event, instead embracing all, or any combination of, a wide range of processes:

Site-specific art adopts strategies that are either aggressively anti visual – informational, textual, expositional, didactic – or immaterial altogether – gestures, events, or performances bracketed by temporal boundaries. The ‘work’ no longer seeks to be a noun/object but a verbal/process, provoking the viewers’ critical (not just physical) acuity regarding ideological conditions of this viewing. (Kwon 2004:24)

Mirroring this shift in understanding of the term site-specific there occurred a re-evaluation of public art, which began to embrace the importance of the relational dynamic between the participants, the art and the site itself. Public art had long been aligned with monumental sculpture and object-centred practices, yet ‘new-genre public art’, as referred to by Lacy, shifted the focus away from the object and its site to the processes which informed it, be they art or not art processes, and the engagement of the people involved in that process. The artists themselves then became the ‘site’ of the interaction and it was their action of mediating between location and community that replaced the role of the site as the context. The location is still important, as are the narratives that inform it, but the site has moved elsewhere and become relational. When the roots of site-specificity are grounded (literally) in location, rather than site, then the artist becomes the site out of necessity, and indeed is the site of the artwork, the location of the authorship. When in the 1960’s and 1970’s the location of the artwork, the object, was tied to the site to which it responded and where it was located, questions had arisen about the authorship of the artwork, as the site was the author, as Serra clearly asserted in his statement.

Kwon refers to the action of ‘unhinging art from its site’ and it could be said that by doing so the authorship was transferred from the site to the artist. Kwon suggests that the concept of the site of authorship returning to the artist as author is a rejection of Barthes and all those that hailed the ‘death of the author’. At the same time, the curator, previously more commonly known as the arts administrator, stepped into the void. Kwon describes the late 1980’s and 1990’s as a time when the ‘aesthetics of administration’ became the ‘administration of aesthetics’. She describes this process as being whereby “the artist is no longer necessarily the maker of aesthetic objects but has become a facilitator, educator, coordinator and bureaucrat.” (Kwon 2004:51)

The concept of site-specificity in terms of location became important again when non-gallery exhibitions became absorbed into the cultural identity of cities, often operating outside of the established gallery network. Artist-led projects increased substantially in the 1980’s and many sought empty buildings in areas of regeneration, spaces big enough to accommodate the huge number of art students now leaving the university system.[1] With urban regeneration had come homogeneity – if one city successfully rebuilt its docks area as a cultural quarter, the next city would follow. When artists used empty building to draw attention to the life of a city, by doing so they were boosting the cultural economy and making that place unique. This may not have been so predominant in USA, but it was certainly a force of change here in Britain, most evidently in the east End of London.[2] According to Kwon:

Significantly, the appropriation of site-specific art for the valorization of urban identities comes at a time of a fundamental cultural shift in which architecture and urban planning, formerly the primary media for expressing a vision of a city, are displaced by other media more intimate with marketing and advertising. (Kwon 2002:53)

Regeneration resulted in the adoption of site-specific practices by the mainstream, and public art commissioners embraced its potential of contributing to place-making, using site-specific art to celebrate sense of place:

Certainly site-specific art can lead to the unearthing of repressed histories, help provide greater visibility to marginalized groups and issues, and initiate the re(dis)covery of ‘minor’ places so far ignored by the dominant culture. But inasmuch as the current socioeconomic order thrives on the (artificial) production and (mass) consumption of difference (for difference sake), the siting of art in ‘real’ places can also be a means to extract the social and historical dimensions of these places in order to variously serve the thematic drive of an artist, satisfy institutional demographic preference profiles, or fulfil the fiscal needs of a city. (Kwon 2002:53)

Tuan refers to this place-making as topophilia: “The term topophilia couples sentiment with place” (Tuan 1974:113) and continues by saying:

The appreciation of landscape is more personal and longer lasting when it is mixed with the memory of human incidents. It also endures beyond the fleeting when aesthetic pleasure is combined with scientific curiosity.

Tuan also offers a distinction between space and place:

In experience, the meaning of space often merges with that of place. “Space” is more abstract than “place”. What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value. Architects speak of locational (place) qualities of space. The ideas “space” and “place” require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place. (Tuan 1977:53)

Cartiere also refers to the often-confused terms of space and place:

Within the lexicon of public art, terms such as site, space and place are often used interchangeably. This indiscriminate interchange can cause confusion and can be detrimental to understanding the distinct nature of both site-specific and place-specific work. (Cartiere 2003:96)

[1] cee.lse.ac.uk/cee%20dps/ceedp57.pdf As higher education participation rose in the 1980s and 1990s, this became increasingly problematic. Firstly, the level of per capita resourcing in HE fell dramatically, as student numbers were expanded whilst funding remained more or less constant in real terms.

[2] http://disappearheremag.com/features/article/the_rise_and_rise_of_the_east_end/

In the 1980’s SPACE and Acme Studios would play, amongst others, a significant role in pioneering the East End. Both artist-run, not for profit initiatives, would utilize abandoned houses on the bomb peppered streets of East London as affordable live/work spaces, to counteract ever-increasing living costs.

Autumn: find your Flow – seek new horizons, plot, plan, fundraise – 4 mentoring slots available

As the evenings draw in it’s a good time to start pondering the next steps for your practice. G4A grant applications submitted soon will bear fruit (if successful) in the New Year and motivate you during the short winter days and the long cold nights.

Maybe it’s because the evening light is still hanging on that the funding situation feels a little bit less challenging this year, more hopeful, more glass half-full than half-empty. In the art sector we’ve had a few years of dragging ourselves along with persistence and developing strategies for resilience.

So, how can you do your best to see the light at the end of the tunnel to welcome the New Year in?

Mentoring is a good way to build confidence, earn new skills and get some help in untangling what you think you need from what you think you want.

For two years I have been mentoring artists for many reasons. I have done so before then and also supported artist-led groups through formal schemes. Some artists simply what a critical friend – others want feedback, support and a friendly ear. You may want to make changes in your work, or begin to think about extending studies, or work towards a project that is a little more ambitious than anything you have ever done before.

Professional development when you are freelance may seem like a luxury, but often it’s the best investment you can make. When I support artists to make funding applications, I also help them learn to do it themselves in the future. I can advise on project management, health and safety, partnership building, budget management, websites, writing and blogging and many other things.

If you are experienced at applying for funding, you may decide to apply for a small grant for professional development support, maybe alongside other training needs, or as part of a project that is stretching you a little. If you are not ready yet to do funding applications but need help to develop a project framework and plan possible partners, I can help. Big or small projects – planning is easier when you have someone to plan with.

I enjoy mentoring so have decided to make space in my other work for 4 mentees this coming year. I am busy with delivering projects, writing professionally and planning new project myself. If you think this could be helpful, drop me an email and we can have a (free) 15 minute phone conversation to discuss what you might benefit from having help on.

new horizons new horizons…………

Here are a few bits of feedback from last years mentees, who were a delight to work with:

“In a short time, Carolyn was able to offer some comments and ways to improve my practice”

“Refreshing to have feedback from an informed, outside source: it cuts through everyday practice and ways of seeing”

“Working with Carolyn was a true partnership: complementary skills, hard work and a drive to realise my project in the best way possible.”

Article about The Promise and PARADISE in new edition of CCQ

CCQ is an arts journal published in Wales. My first article is in this edition, available from all good gallery bookstores. It’s a quality publication and a great read.

My piece is a preview of Arnolfini show The Promise and Trust New Art show at Tyntesfield, called PARADISE.

More next month too.

See http://ccqmagazine.com/

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just started using Medium.com – and invite you to contribute to my collection ‘reflective practice’

The past year or so has been busy setting up Flow and has also been a great opportunity to write more, explore more and think more. Reflective practice if you will. As I recently mentioned in the article on Arts Professional, the use of emotional words in arts policy is definitely on the rise. Personally I am inspired by Brene Brown and her work on shame, vulnerability and daring greatly.

Flow Contemporary Arts evolved from years of reflective practice. Philosophically it is informed by the thinking of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In the physical world, it is inspired by the way the Severn Bore systematically and poetically occurs when the forces of the sea push the river back on itself, creating a wave that people surf on. That action creates reciprocity, a push and pull, a give and take.

As well as writing publicly on here and other platforms, I write extensively in private notes, planning documents and when framing ideas. I never got into writing in diaries, mostly because my handwriting is pretty illegible so it’s not useful to me. But technology makes reflective note taking a dream. Evernote, Notes, Googledocs, Dropbox,  voice notes, Pinterest and a myriad of other software developments make writing accessible to all. And now there is Medium.com.

It’s new to me and I have been trying to understand it. Today I launched a collection about Reflective Practice.

If you haven’t used it before, I will explain (as well as I can at this point). I dipped my toes in by submitting some of my texts to other peoples collections. They then approved, refused or ignored my requests. I kept searching for somewhere that covered reflective practices and was surprised to find there aren’t any.

So now I want to wave a flag to you and invite you to submit something. I can’t promise to accept it – the way Medium is self-policed is how the writing standards are maintained. It’s like peer critique. You can also ask other people to give editorial feedback. I must try that soon!

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feeling like I’ve been struck by lightning like Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio – mind buzzing, tingling allover!

*also published yesterday, but some settings weren’t correct

Lightning strike damages thumb of Rio de Janeiro’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue http://bbc.in/1dhf3rP  pic.twitter.com/IxYIBy2oQj

What an amazing photograph! I saw it on my iphone on Twitter yesterday – the first Twitter communication for a week, having been hidden away at Totleigh Barton – an Arvon centre in Devon. I was on an arts writing course supported by Visual Arts South West. (VASW)

I felt like the Christ the Redeemer statue myself – alive and electric with a stimulated brain!

The course was specially devised for, and attended by, 15 South West UK artists. Arvon is renowned for supporting poets, novelists and play writers, but never before had they hosted a course specifically for people working in the arts. It was brilliant – challenging, moving, tiring, refreshing and motivational. The tutors offered range – Cherry Smyth writes for Art Monthly and is a poet, Christopher William Hill a playwright and children’s writer too. Charlotte Higgins also came along from the Guardian and shared with us her experience of being an arts journalist and even braved the torrential rain for a walk. Thank you to all of the tutors for being there – it was a privilege to share a 15th Century farmhouse with you all.

I’ve always been slightly resistant to poetry, but found myself writing some. Apart from here, on my blog, much of my writing is for a specific purpose – catalogues, press releases, funding applications etc. Due to the very nature of those things, I rarely write humour – so I tried that too. This is all taking a while to assimilate, so I shan’t share anything with you yet – but maybe later in the week. I am not unlike the sodden fields, we can’t soak anything more up, we need to let things sink in first.

But I will share how I survived the lack of internet and mobile phone, because it was amusing and farcical in many ways…..

Picture the scene – rolling devon countryside, wintery flooding and endless downpours. A one-track lane leading to the Arvon Centre, pitted and collapsing under the rain and the traffic ploughing up and down it. It’s night time, the rain carries on trying to find room in the ground to settle, but until it does, splashing from pathways and sploshing continually.  The heavy thatch of the farmhouse wept continually in despair at the weather – even when the rain stopped temporarily, from inside, the water continued to drain through in an endless stream of drip drip drip. Four of the group decided contact with the world was imperative (it goes without saying I am one of the four). We piled into a car and drove slowly up the hill, over two cattlegrids. We crawled along in the car through the dark night, looking for a signal to magically appear on our mobiles. We turn up a little junction and yes, we have signals!!! “2 bars, 3 bars, oh no, down to one bar – hey, have you nicked one of my bars?” All 4 sit in the car, holding up their phones all facing one direction. The light bounces off their faces, their anxiety palpable as phones begin to chime and ping. Eventually we are satiated and the road saturated. After much 3 point turning to avoid the slippery muddy edges that would have left us stranded, our driver managed to rotate the vehicle and we headed back down the hill. Replete. Smug and just a little bit ashamed that we cannot cope without our gadgets. We had managed about 4 hours!

Sadly, I can’t say I felt lightning strike when we got online. No exciting emails, no worrying text messages. I didn’t try again, ok, I did walk up a couple of times, but in reality, life below at Totleigh Barton was more exciting and rewarding.

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Sisters on Saturday: Symposium at SVA, Stroud. Sue Thomas; Semiconductor: Squidsoup; Simon Ryder The New Natural

new nature

This Saturday 25th May is going to be a very interesting day. As part of the SITE Festival, artist Simon Ryder is hosting a symposium to consider the future of nature – what do we mean by ‘new nature’? Is nature only what we already know of, and some feel, have damaged irrepairably, or might it be something unimagined and unforeseen?

My sister, Professor Sue Thomas, and I, find nothing unusual in such conversations. When I look back at some of the weird discussions and debates we’ve had over the table in the past, I have rarely stopped to wonder whether this is usual family fare. It’s our normal – which is what matters to us.

Intense dialogues about when we are online, do we ‘feel’ we ‘reside’ online? Is virtuality another geography? Where does fact and fiction begin and end? Does it end? We mostly agree. But what do you think?

I’m taking a back seat on Saturday while others enter similar discussions, chaired by Rob la Frenais, of The Arts Catalyst. It will be an intriguing conversation as it unravels the different ways we might consider New Nature.

The New Natural Symposium
Semiconductor, Prof. Sue Thomas and Squidsoup
Saturday 25th May 10.30am-5pm
SVA, 4 John St, Stroud GL5 2HA
Installation Friday 24th-Sunday 26th May

11am-4pm Goods Shed, Stroud GL5 3AP

Book now:

The New Natural is presented by Heart of Wonder in collaboration with SVA, and supported by Alias.

Tickets £12 including lunch and refreshments £20 for weekend inclusive of evening events. See SVA website for more details, or give them a call.

Booking is essential as places are limited 01453 751440 or email office@sva.org.uk