Notes from Spectres of Evaluation Conference, : Rethinking Art, Community, Value. 6-7 February, Melbourne 2014 Centre for Cultural Partnerships, University of Melbourne and Footscray Community Arts Centre

Photo credit: Sophie Hope

Photo credit: Sophie Hope

Notes from Spectres of Evaluation Conference: Rethinking Art, Community, Value. 6-7 February, Melbourne 2014

Centre for Cultural partnerships,

Faculty of the VCA and MCM, The University of Melbourne with Footscray Community Arts Centre

This conference was a milestone in a three year research project on the evaluation of arts interventions in social contexts and communities. The PI, Lachlan McDowell, who is also the Head of the Centre for Cultural Partnerships (CCP), described the research as moving beyond evaluation as advocacy, exploring both quantitative and qualitative methodologies in ways that captured value and that are also critical, addressing the potential harm of artistic intervention. The research also positions community cultural practice in relation both to a global arena and in relation to so called ‘high art’. The area of Community and Cultural Development in Australia embraces social art practice, community art and socially engaged art and this complexity was reflected in the conference participants.

The event was held at the Footscray Community Art Centre (FCAC), which is developing a partnership with CCP. The conference was imaginatively developed by Dr Marnie Badham, a Research Fellow at CCP, who also works closely with FCAC. It uniquely drew together researchers, artists, community members, policy makers in a spirit of carnival underpinned by some serious thinking around the issues of art as a practice of community cultural development. It came alive through exhibitions of projects, live performances, interventions that drew participation as well as excellent keynotes, all of which contributed to a sense that while this was a very serious business, it was also playful, sensory, to be experienced in order to be understood.

The first keynote, Ted Purves, from California College of the Arts, Los Angeles, is a writer and artist, author of What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art, published by State University of New York Press in 2005. Ted vividly explored a number of US artists’ interventions including David Hammon’s Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), downtown Manhattan; Suzanne Lacy’s No Blood, No Foul (1995-6) in Oakland, San Francisco; Michael Swaine’s The Free Mending Library, 2002, also San Francisco. These were a few of a number of examples.

Each project demonstrated how the artist had appropriated a social form – street vending, a basket ball game, the mending of clothes. Their creative action, Purves argued, was a ‘stepping out’ of the excluded zone of ‘contemporary art’ and, presumably – though this is my interpretation, also a stepping out of the functions of the original social form of vending, competitive games, shopping respectively. The artworks enabled a moment of reflection, irony perhaps on social form itself. Interestingly Purves drew on Georg Simmel, a 19th/20th Century German philosopher and sociologist, to explore these artworks through Simmel’s questions: What is society?, What is individuality? How does the one fragment the other? In particular, he reflected how the presence of these alternative social forms exert pressure on the ‘normality’ on which they draw by disorientating and realigning social relationships in ways that are ‘not normal’ but provoke new potential. For example, deploying a basket ball game, as Suzanne Lacy did in 1995-6, facilitated a social interaction between two groups, the police and black youth. The game, as a social form, mimicked the conditions of real confrontation, enabling a different form of social engagement based in play.

In these works, the conventions of culture accreted over time, come under pressure, momentarily giving time back to an alternative perspective, a different modality

The issue that Purves provokes for me is the nature of the encounter. This is an encounter between conventional social phenomena and a provocation made by the artists (all named individuals in these examples) that offer reversals of the convention. This is not a merging of art into the social. It appears more like an interval of distance in which the private, singular world of an individual makes a momentary appearance within the social, disrupting it gently. Perhaps what is important is the degree to which social form itself is rendered permeable and therefore more open to change through a form of sensitization, sensuality even. It suggested a further question: How might such interventions, that emerge out of artistic endeavour in specific places and communities, provoke a rethinking of the binaries of private/public, social/individual and offer an alternative way of imagining the public sphere?

Sophie Hope, Lecturer in Arts Management,Birkbeck, University of London, followed with a keynote entitled Behind the Happy Faces : How does the emotional labour of contemporary arts practice inhibit approaches to evaluation?

Hope  provoked the question of feeling/sympathy in community-engaged art as an increased disjuncture between the experienced and the enacted. This disjuncture may have been exacerbated through increased professionalization of the practice.  Drawing on Arlie Hochschild ‘s The Managed Heart (1983), she described community-engaged art as an emotional labour that increasingly shares the same ground as other service based professions. The flight attendant, the social worker, the Disneyland operator are all impelled through their status as waged staff, to appear ‘happy’ at all times irrespective of the circumstances. This tendency has a superficial effect of hiding real emotions and possibly a deeper, unethical implication, of deceiving their clients.

In Hochschild’s reading, not to create a distance between one’s real feelings and those feelings necessitated by a profession, is in fact dangerous. Hope raises the question – as long as community engaged art aims to build trust, does this kind of estrangement from real feeling become a controlling of emotions? Is such control acceptable in the field of community art practice?

This led to a further more radical question – could the masking of real emotion in this way prevent criticality in the field? Who benefits from what might amount to a commercialization of feeling?

In Hope’s articulation, it is important to revisit the difference between the artist as independent activist versus the artist as paid worker, between political and the social, between critique and affect. It is also important to rethink and possibly reverse aspects of the professionalization of community-engaged art practice in ways the open up greater levels of critique.

In some senses, Hope’s discussion points to tensions and contradictions in those cultures of artistic practice that are publicly funded, such as the UK and Australia. The tension she points to may be differently configured in cultures in which artists draw down funding from non art sources to sustain community-engaged practice in ways that carry greater levels of self-organization.

That said, Hope points to another crucially important paradox. In her presentation she entertained us with an apt and playful video of herself acting between emotional states such as ‘sadness’, ‘surprise’, ‘love’, complete with 18th century powdered wig to the soundtrack of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. She was exploring Diderot’s Paradox of Acting, published posthumously in 1830, and surprised herself at how fluidly she moved through one emotion after another, representing, but not necessarily feeling what she portrayed. In this way, she points to something quite fundamental about the way art works in the world. Diderot claimed that in order to move the audience, the actor must remain unmoved. Arnheim put it differently – the tightrope walker and cyclist share the same movements but to different ends, to different qualities of experience. The cyclist is unselfconscious of his movement were the tightrope walker, deploying the same techniques of physical balance, works with the sense of balance in the viewer to create an encounter simultaneously with fear, relief, awe and wonder. The tightrope walker is not at risk, is not experiencing the fear but nonetheless draws in the viewer’s sense of risk to create a tension. The work of art is not real but an experience carefully, if not artfully constructed, to generate emotional states at a distance, enabling us to enter in by suspending disbelief. In what sense might this inform the dilemma that Hope’s presentation has posed?

It was interesting to note that both Hope and Purves addressed evaluation through the generative. In contrast Will Garett-Petts, Thomson Rivers University, Canada, provided a framework for thinking about evaluation in terms of impact analyzing the work of community – engaged art through the rhetoric of ‘the project’. Garett-Petts has a background in literature. His approach to evaluation is discourse analysis.

Garett-Petts contrasted the discourse surrounding the Creative City (championed by Richard Florida) with what he termed ‘vernacular creative process’ more appropriate to smaller cities. In the Creative Cities approach, the artist, designer, creative individual expands the creative economy through immaterial labour. The emergence of a knowledge based creative class lies at the heart of the Creative City, contradicting a broad egalitarian notion of creativity. In this model volunteerism and the development of experiences that are richly personal, become suspect.

In contrast, vernacular creativity mobilises the creativity that is within all of us, already present. This is not a creative class, separated out from the non-creative classes. The work of vernacular creativity is to proliferate spaces of interaction that are situated in local, concrete issues.

Garett-Petts referenced a project, not driven by artists, but by the Trade Union of Steel Workers – The Shower Project. Through a short documentary, he demonstrated how volunteers from the United Steel Workers Union undertook to build showers for the homeless, to enable the latter to join in on other Union led community activities such as a regular breakfast as a community event. One of the important qualities of The Shower Project, was the time and effort put in by the union members, whose skills and aesthetic sensibilities rarely showed the light of day in their everyday work, but in the context of the project, became a source of real pleasure and celebration. Applying existing knowledge of planning, construction, co-ordination, of knowing how to help, the project opened up new forms of energy in individuals that clearly acted as an important emotional counterpoint to their industrial experience. It was very significant to the individuals involved that the source of the project was the Trade Union and not the Company via corporate social responsibility.

Analysed through the discourse of ‘project’, Garett-Petts drew out some important qualities. Projects are now ubiquitous in all aspects of life. Starting with a point of interest, a plan is generated from which emerge improvisatory forms of engagement, complex if not competing narratives, the preparedness to act in the moment and also a sense of an ending. There is a materiality that allows us to know that a project has happened, through forms of making that leave a trace. In The Shower project these are palpable in the form of a built facility for public use.  Vernacular forms of creativity through projects might also include activities such as public cooking, stories that move one to action such as that of the homeless and their desire and need for cleanliness. There is expertise and skill, and, importantly an absence of bureaucratic language and process.

Vernacular creativity and Florida’s Creative City share in common the element of mobility that a project affords. However, there is a crucial difference. The Creative City offers an array of opportunities without strong social ties. The vernacular creativity of projects such as the Shower project is deeply embedded in strong social ties.

Garett–Petts’ sense of the role of materiality in vernacular creativity is striking and at odds with the emphasis on the immaterial that dominates relational aesthetics. He draws on Paul Carter’s ideas of the material nature of knowledge in the arts as focused on invention more than classification, nonetheless sociable and interactive. Sennett’s idea of investing thought into what can be changed and also John Dewey’s thinking through materials as an experiencing of the world in the development of knowledge are also important points of reference.

In choosing a non art example, it struck me that Garett-Petts was opening the question of the kind role might artists undertake in the development of vernacular creativity and how artistic research might be developed in ways that move beyond a kind of self reflection, self evaluation of an experience. This is a proposal that he has explored to some depth in his essay Art in the Public Sphere: what artists and community partners say about ‘artistic research’ and the artistic animation of smaller communities published in Animation of Public Space through the Arts edited Nancy Duxbury 2013.

There is a strong resonance with the first phase of On the Edge 2001-4 in which we focused on the role of contemporary visual arts in remote rural cultures with projects that grew out of shared interest and were community led to an extent. None of these projects had or indeed aimed to have the long term practical outcomes of The Shower Project but did catalyse energy in relation to shared interest, sociability of decision making and the celebration of skill to achieve a new end. This work has continued with Helen Smith’s doctoral research, Connecting Communities through the Arts in collaboration with Woodend Barn Arts Centre in Banchory. It would be interesting to exchange research approaches to the documentation and analysis of this work.

There is an excellent website of the 12 year research programme on Small Cities Development :

An event of this complexity exposes a serious challenge: that of representation. Any worthwhile thinking on evaluation in community cultural development and the role of art within it, needs to bring together the different players involved : participants, artists, policy makers as well as cultural theorists. What draws these individuals together is interest but not necessarily consensus on what the issues are or how to approach them or indeed, how to enter into a discussion. This conference was very successful in creating a space that allowed for quality exchanges of experience to occur without a false sense of consensus. I left with the insight that evaluation is deeply bound to acts of communication and exchange, a living process rather than a body of data- so frequently the required form. Evaluation in this sense is  a process of  sharing, though not necessarily agreeing on, the value of an endeavour.Photo credit: Sophie Hope

Photo credit: Sophie Hope

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: