We are now three weeks in and I feel very behind on blog posts- apologies! Mary has introduced me to the concept of The Salon, and it’s one I very much adore. The basic concept is this:
+ 5-12 carefully selected people come together to discuss a mutually relevant idea/concern/question
+ Any more than 12 or so people and the group is just too big, the dynamic changes and the conversational magic dissipates!
+ Share food whilst conversing
And that’s basically it! I run an Artist Run Initiative (ARI- as we call them in Aus, not sure if that term is used here?) called Paper Mountain, and this idea is something I will be taking back to our little team; it’s like the format for dialogue we’ve been searching for!
Mary asked me to come up with a few questions to discuss at The Shipley Salon, which I did. I will outline here the questions and the general jist of the responses- I won’t go into everything as it was a long and fruitful discussion, but rather will just offer my reflections. It should be mentioned here that we don’t really use the expression ‘arts and health’ in Perth, we instead would call the same thing ‘community art’. So when I say community art I am also saying arts and health!
The Shipley Salon took place on Friday, October 26. In attendance at The Salon were: Mary Robson, Mike White, Incy Wood, Anni Raw, Sylvie Fourcin, and me.
Q1. Would you say that you are engaged with contemporary art, and is contemporary art relevant to community art?
I asked this questions because in addition to my community work, I often work full time in a large contemporary art organisation; the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, and also run the aforementioned space, Paper Mountain. The second half of this question is one I’ve been asking myself for awhile!
The question was discussed at length. Statement such as ‘They are the same thing’ were bandied about, but this idea was later interrogated when project ownership was brought up. It was agreed upon through various examples that the ‘media’ often can’t accept that a project facilitated by a contemporary artist could belong to the community- it is the artist that is the media attraction here and so the project is presented as belonging entirely to them (sometimes with the community becoming almost the artwork content). In this conversation contemporary art was defined in comparison to community art, as art that is given media attention. Reflecting now I don’t think I agree with this definition. I think contemporary art is perhaps practice focussed on artistic practice, and community art is practice focussed on community. And I think they are of equal importance. While I don’t agree with all contemporary art practices, I also don’t agree with all community art practices! But both forms practised with excellence are of equal importance, in my opinion!
Everyone agreed on the importance of a community artist having their own practice in addition to their community work. Mary then blew this out of the water by pointing out that community art is her practice and explained that coming from a theatre background, the shared experience has always been at the crux of her work. No-one could deny that Mary is an excellent community artist. Apart from Mary’s brilliance, I think this largely comes down to the reflectivity of her practice. Everything Mary does in her work is carefully considered both before and after the project takes place. Maybe this reflectivity is akin to that of a community artist who is really engaged with their own artistic practice, as a strong artistic practice is by nature reflective?
This conversation raised questions for me about why art is important to us- is contemporary art still the medium through which we question, express and reflect on our cultural surroundings? I think many community artists would say no, but I would say yes, of course in addition to other mediums, such as writing, film, Tumblr…!
Q2. How important is the outcome of community art projects- is it all about the process?
Sylvie: ‘Well it depends on your funder!’
I’ve been in many many conversations/debates surrounding process vs outcome in the past, but always in a group of artists, talking about their own art making. In that context I’ve always thought that in most cases while the process in infinitely interesting to the artist, unless it is specifically devised for presentation it’s actually really boring to audiences.
I think this question is different in a community art context- here I think the process is absolutely the outcome. The participants in community projects really take the place of the audience in a lot of ways. While it’s nice for people to see projects, it’s not in anyway crucial that they do for the project to be a success. There may be an additional outcome in the form of presentation, but that is the lesser outcome in most cases.
There was much discussion about quality being paramount. Everyone agrees that people (including children) should never be given cheap materials to work with. Doing so is patronising and undermines the entire project- good quality art materials should be used at all times. I recall recently having to use a ‘children’s’ paint brush (a stiff brush with unruly bristles) to paint and thinking at the time how hard it was to control the paint with it. If it was hard for me- how hard must it be for children who have lesser fine motor control as it is! No wonder children find it difficult to paint straight lines, they’ve probably never been given an artist quality paintbrush.
An example was cited where a participate asked the artist if they could dilute the art material they were using, which the artist allowed. The result was an artwork which looked awful in comparison to those made by the people who hadn’t diluted theirs. This was a case of an artist letting down their participant by allowing a sub-quality material to be used by someone who didn’t realise what that would look like. I also can recall a few times where a similar situation has arisen for me and I too have given in. I realise now, after this discussion, that what I needed to do in those situations was to sit down and explain to them why changing the process/materials wouldn’t work, and maybe even doing a demonstration so they understood. It’s hard when someone has an idea and you know it won’t work- but better to show them that than have their artwork come out lesser than everyone else’s. Working to ensure quality is essential to good practice.
Q3. How do you give communities some form of follow up or continuation- so that a project is not a one-off moment in their lives? Is this necessary or doable?
Mary: ‘It is not always necessary but it is doable’
There was consensus on this question. Many examples were cited where a community member who’d been involved in a particular project had come back and expressed how meaningful that project was to them. In most cases the meaningful nature of this experience transcends the art objects created at the time.
Incy recalled her sister, who was in the first ever Roots and Wings group, having no interest now in the actual self portrait she created in year 6, but being able to articulate how important the experience of that project was to her and the path that it set her on. Mary describes such projects as ‘A view from a window you didn’t know was there’, and for Roots and Wings alumni returning to the lantern parade is like ‘Oh, I remember that view!’.
There was a discussion surrounding the way a program loses it’s specialness/preciousness if it becomes a regular thing- it becomes part of the furniture. For some groups of people (maybe most?) it seems more important to create an unforgettable, meaningful experience, than to enter their lives permanently. For other groups it is meaningful to connect with them regularly and to really build a strong relationship over time.
Mike says ‘Is there a correlation between social determination of health and the impulse to collectively make artworks?’… which feels like the beginning of a book. Every time I try to reflect on that my thoughts flood, it’s such a big question! If anyone has any reflections on Mike’s question (which I hope I transcribed correctly) I would love to hear them!
The Salon was a great success! We’ve actually just had another one in Durham at RT Projects, which I will blog about very soon!
So much to think about, so much wisdom to learn from!