Presentation given at the Impact of the Arts seminar presented by AMASS (Acting on the Margins, Arts as Social Practice), in response to the provocation:
"Are we expecting too much from artists and culture? Funding bodies frequently assess artistic proposals on the basis of their perceived impact on specific social groups, their ability to address communities’ needs or factors like audience development and the participation of various stakeholders in the creative process. The EU-funded project ‘Acting on the Margins: Arts as Social Sculpture’ (AMASS) implemented over thirty creative projects around Europe in order to analyse and promote the role of the arts in the mitigation of societal challenges experienced by groups facing different forms of discrimination. It also aimed to generate new forms of civic engagement and to address the marginal positioning and under-representation of some groups and communities in Europe. In this symposium, different speakers moderated by curator Maren Richter will discuss the role of social engagement in AMASS and other similar artistic projects and the perils of instrumentalisation. Socially engaged practices shift the attention of the public towards creative processes that encourage participation, collaboration or activism. But are artists allowing themselves to be instrumentalised when they engage in practices that have social purposes? When does the notion of ‘empowerment’ become problematic?"
Rules of Engagement
When I began to work on this presentation, I printed the provocation as I often do, so I could read it without looking at a computer screen. And as I glanced down at the printed page, I misread the words ‘role of social engagement’ as ‘rule of engagement’. This got me thinking.
In this climate of ever-present war, we quickly become used to military jargon. Just this week, for example, we all learnt that a leopard is not an animal, but it is, in fact, a highly sophisticated tank made by Germany, and distributed to by used by the militaries of many different countries.
Military culture and language can infiltrate many areas of life; take, for example, the commercial kitchen hierarchical framework which is directly derived from the first large-scale cooking enterprises that serviced Europe’s armies during the 19th century.
More insidiously, phrases like the cloying ‘hearts and minds’ seem to have morphed from the carefree or careless Blairite whitewash-speak of the Iraq war, to bland advertising and populist ‘bread and circus’ politics.
How, then, to speak about socially-engaged art – which is, as its best self, inherently caring, nourishing, creative and uplifting – in a language of destruction, violence and devastation? And, more importantly, can doing this help us tackle the questions posed to us this afternoon “Are artists allowing themselves to be instrumentalised when they engage in practices that have social purposes? When does the notion of ‘empowerment’ become problematic?”
Let’s get stuck in, shall we?
Broadly speaking, the rules of engagement of a military operation outline the internal rules afforded military forces (or military individuals) that define the circumstances, conditions, degree and manner in which the use of force, or actions which might be construed as provocative, may be applied. They also provide authorisation for, and limits on, the use of force and the employment of certain specific capabilities. Rules of Engagement will not normally dictate how a result is to be achieved, but will indicate what measures may be unacceptable.
If the aim of a socially-engaged project is to ‘empower’ a community, what are the rules of engagement with which an artist can work?
First, there is recruitment. This is a word we actually used quite often during AMASS; ‘the recruitment process’, and obviously it’s a sort of shorthand for the lengthy process of identifying who may be interested, available, and willing to take part in a project. But against the backdrop of large-scale mobilisation of Russian conscripts the word takes on a more sinister and cajoling meaning.
Then, depending on how much time is available, the artist may become ‘embedded’ in the community. Bringing to mind the 1990s news broadcasts of journalists embedded with military troops in the Middle East, the term somehow implies an ‘on-safari’ adventure, dossing-down with insurgents in a heroic and selfless sojourn away from home.
At the end of the project, hopefully, there is a positive outcome; and if the aim of a socially-engaged project is to ‘empower’ a community, we come to the crux of the matter; that is ‘power’; in whose hands is it, and into whose hands to we want to place it? If we empower a community, does that automatically disempower others? If we live by the two-sided systems of our modern economy, when one side of the scale goes down, the other must go up, and rarely is perfect balance achieved.
All this, is not to imply that participants of socially-engaged creative projects are a hostile entity; on the contrary, ideally, the artists and participants are very-much on the ‘same side’, even if conflict does, occasionally flare up.
If there is to be a cold war, or a sense of tension with a partner, I would suggest that it is the authorities that often act in bad faith, those that damage (sometimes mortally) communities with misguided policies or planning, and then attempt to place a sticking plaster over a gaping wound by allocating small amounts of funding to artists who are tasked with picking up the pieces.
Artists then have no choice but to resort to sleeping with the enemy, approaching funding bodies, in an attempt to secure support for their work. Thus, artists find themselves almost held hostage by funding authorities, who demand ever-more proof that their work is of value; rations and kit are issued against documented and tangible deliverables, which themselves demand time and valuable resources.
The question we ask ourselves then, is “does art and creativity find itself caught in the cross-fire, between good intentions, economic cynicism, and a universal desire to live a good life?”
I am aware that using this military language brings in a sense of conflict, of hostile opposites, and of winner and loser. Possibly, one solution is to refer to the conflict of a no-man’s land, or a buffer-zone, where fighting cannot take place. This doesn’t work however, because a buffer-zone is a vacuum, empty of conflict, as well as empty of life and empty of any sort of activity.
We can also think of words like armistice, cease-fire, truce, which imply a laying-down of arms, but these also maintain a sense of tension; the anticipation that hostilities may start again at any time, as they just have in Palestine in the past week.
To come back to the question; are artists allowing themselves to be instrumentalised when they engage in practices that have social purposes? Maybe the artist’s only solution is to act as double- or triple- agent; pretending to be on board with policy-makers and funders, while always making the health and happiness of the communities they are working with a priority.
I know it’s Saturday night, but I’m going to get one quote – or paraphrase – in at least – from Chomsky; that is, to think as a pessimist and act as an optimist. Maybe by using military language to explore the ugliness of humanity, can move us to mobilise our tanks for the good of our communities.