Seminar 1: Oakland Dialogue Question and Answer session

Session 1: Aesthetics and Ethics

The perspective of community development

Damian Killeen (Core Group): My history is all in social action, social development of one kind or another.  I responded to the structure that you have put around the issue of ethics. The discussion you were having is the same kind of discussion that I have heard many times over for many years within the community development, community action field.  Reflective people and effective workers in that field will always be asking these kinds of questions about their practice.

One word that you didn’t use, which might have been implied in what you were saying but would definitely be overt in that discussion, was the issue of power. This would be pretty soon on the table as being at the centre of what is being explored.  I just make that observation.

On the aesthetic side, I was wondering whether, in my own work in the past, I have had aesthetic concerns.  I was very interested in that description of what aesthetic meant because, given that description, yes, I absolutely do have aesthetic concerns – on all sorts of occasions where I am bringing people together where there is a purpose.  The word I’ve written down here that you have used is ‘transformational’. It could mean transformation of perception or feeling or relationship or it could mean something more concrete, a change in direction of action.  Many people in community development, community education fields and so on will be concerned to create an environment in which people coming into a room or a space, experience some kind of difference from the normal which frees them up to engage with each other in different kinds of ways.

I was intrigued, right at the very beginning, by Suzanne’s business of rearranging the chairs.  I recognised that happening and I had a wicked thought – Was that an artistic act because it was performed by an artist? It certainly looked like the same kind of thing that I would often do.

Suzanne Lacy: It was the same kind of thing that you would often do.

Damian Killeen: [laughs] That’s perfect.  So, but I’m really just responding to what I’ve heard. I think that there are many people working who would not begin to describe their work as art. They wouldn’t be looking for any kind of validation from the art world as to what they are doing. They would have a different related set of arguments, justifications (perhaps, is the word) for being concerned with the aesthetic in the way you described it – the bodily experience of people in space. They would certainly share this ethical agenda.

So, I am, at the beginning of this exercise, wondering where’s the art?  Or What kind of area is the art-life interchange? To me, the difference – one difference, rather, is the aspect of performance.  I can think that towards the end of many projects that I am involved in, there will be some form of presentation of the project. Depending on the nature of the project, it may be very formalised in a conventional sense, or it may be something which people have put a lot of creative thinking into. How can we communicate with people differently about this?  So there is an element of performance, but it isn’t the intent that there will be performance at the end of it.

Representation of the different constituencies

Jan-Bert van den Berg (Core Group):

I suppose I’m interested in this conversation that we’re having about ethics and aesthetics in relation to an arts tradition when a lot of the work we’re talking about is created with a whole range of constituent groups. Therefore it is slightly contradictory to then have a discussion around ethics and aesthetics only with one representative of those constituencies here.

Representation of the artist as author, catalyst, negotiator or medium?

Kerstin Mey (Core Group): I think my observation was in a similar direction. I would like to summarise it as question.  What precisely is the role of the artist in these processes?  Is it as facilitator, a catalyst, a medium, a negotiator? How is that role being communicated in the dissemination and the representation of the project afterwards? It is in a way disseminated through a named artist – through a kind of signature artist practice, when in practice it has been a collaborative participatory project. What are the issues that arise out of that?

What does it mean for the artist to reflect and evaluate on a project?

Venda Pollock (Core Group): I’m interested how you, Suzanne, go back now and reflect on your process with the individuals involved. From my point of view, I ‘evaluate’- it is a word I don’t like, but it is the easiest word. When I go back to art projects after they have happened and talk to the participants, it is in itself is a very loaded process. I am coming from a certain academic tradition or a position.

With one project I came in afterwards, they heard that I was from a university and that cast the participant in a certain mindset. The language you use has to be adapted so that the participants  can feel that they can contribute to the dialogue.

In another project I’m looking at now, I am trying a different tack by being involved in the beginning. That has implicated me in the process, but it opens up a lot more avenues for exploration – trying different ways to get people to talk on a level they’ll understand, using verbal or visual techniques.

So I’m quite interested in how you feel what your role is in going back to talk to them.  Are you going back as an artist reflecting on your practice?  Are you seen as an artist continuing a kind of dialogue that was established?  Is the research in itself part of that kind of practice – that ten-year long trajectory? How does that fit in with the way you are thinking now?

Aims and expectations of participants

Kate Foster (Core Group): My question is about aiming for results. When do you articulate your aims, if ever during the project? I’ve read or I’ve just heard that you simply aimed to deal with media literacy, not to touch the bigger problems. Then I think I heard later that you aimed for the result of improved training of police.
If your artworks, if your projects, do you have aims, what are the expectations of the participants when they join the artworks?

Artists and state funding

Judith Stewart: I’m particularly interested in the way that Suzanne’s practice has come from a socialist, feminist, activist-base that has shaped this way of working.

I am interested in the way that this area of work has been so effectively absorbed by the state in this country to the extent that there is an industry that has built up around it. There are a lot of artists who have gone into this way of working because it brings them an income. A lot of artists have found that where they have started off with ambitions for aesthetic and ethical aims, their work has been adopted and changed into something else. In working on certain projects like this, are we actually just working on behalf of the State to make good citizens who do as they are told?

I would also like to throw in a question to Grant about relational aesthetics, which is a big thing in the UK as well. I wondered how your version of aesthetics fits with that?

Knowledge of the creative process and its reception in public space

Monika Vykoukal (Core Group): You were talking before about assessing the work or what the work is constituted of. These are both process of developing it and all the social things that actually happened even without taking in the spectators. Suzanne then touched upon the issue of us discussing its presentation in an art gallery. In a sense, the media is an interesting gap or difference between the performance and the theatrical side of the work, its huge choreography and how people relate to each other within the piece. I’m particularly interested in that aspect of Suzanne’s work right now.

Also how do you actually assess the visible process, as an artwork?  I presume you know because you are always assessing the representation of that.

Group dynamics and the role of the artist

Roxana Meechan (Core Group): I’m very interested in group dynamics and the artist perhaps setting out some structures, boundaries, for a particular group. Obviously, it is nice when, suddenly, the group takes over and somebody else becomes ‘the artist’. Is the role of ‘artist’ something that is interchangeable between individuals?

First contact with authority: the British picture

Ruth Barker (Core group): I just wanted to pick up on something that Grant said that actually really changed the way that I personally understood the Oakland projects. You said that the police are the primary point of contact with the State for the community, for the residents.

I’m from a slightly scummy kind of working class big housing estate in the north of England. The police are certainly not the major or primary point of contact.  The police don’t ever go there!  It’s actually really hard to get the police to come out. The primary point of contact is the ‘dole’ – the Social Security.  You have to go every two weeks and sign on and you get your dole money. They don’t even call your name. They call you a ‘Job Seeker’. I think there is a really important shift – in the kind of power relationships that that embodies i.e. that difference that occurs where the police or the social benefits system are the primary point of contact.

Ways of art living in the world

Janice Parker (Core Group) I’m just thinking about how I know Suzanne’s project and how it lives in the world. I’m wondering how and why different kinds of authorship or ownership come about.  Does the work live in the world in different ways and different contexts? Do the police have a version of it? Does it live in the world in other ways? Does it exist otherwise?

Suzanne Lacy’s response:


The issue of power is ongoing. It is as an ethical issue, one of the primary ethical issues. It is bound up with analysis. It is also involved in the process. I personally incorporated it into the work.

In the long trajectories of these pieces we focused in our discussion on Code 33. This is interesting because it was the first place that the many, many conflicts inherent in the work came into the actual subject of the performance. They were only referred to in the other pieces because youth had a much more prominent voice. It also had something to do with the Free Mumia people showing up and how the whole thing operating as an arena of conflict.

I think it is important to constantly challenge that including the power of one’s authority as the ‘artist’.

Academic bias

The second thing is just a brief aside on the notion of academic bias.  I think there is only bias in this work. There is no way to have an objective reality. Anything I do with respect to recounting is biased and subject to a lot of decisions that I actually have to make. For example – Am I going to put the Free Mumia protest into my film, or am I not? Chris (Johnson) who in that piece, by the way, was called the ‘Oreo’ by the kids – they found him very inaccessible although, probably to you, he was highly accessible.  Chris is the African-American self-educated, colleague of mine who started this whole process. I’m very clear about the way he and I represented a different kind of positioning vis-à-vis race and class and so on, which was opposite from the way the kids understood it.

In the case of me interviewing people, I am not going to people who particularly see me as an academic. They are my friends.  I am only interviewing the 20 or 30 people that carried through, over time, in various ways the division of the project.

Similar things are done in a lot of my projects – including a psychologist who looked at the language structure of kids in the groups and developed a masters thesis on it and so on.

Aims and expectations of the work and its participants

The aims, like the analysis, are developed in the process.  That is, I have an intuition, then I get together with Chris, and he says, ‘You know, I have the same intuition – Let’s go find out what those kids are like’. Then we get a kid involved, and the kid says, ‘hey, you better…’ – Unique Holland was very good in this way.

In Roof is on Fire we met every week with a team of 40 kids.  They felt that they were the leaders. Out of that 40, there were ten who met and decided the questions.  At the rehearsal, the adults took over.  I turned into a militant general in the middle of a performance – ‘Be there, do that ..’. The kids came up to us afterwards and said, ‘Wait a minute.  This is not cool. You need to include us all the way.’ We explained to them that it was difficult to do so when you are representing the vision, the voice and the experience in the work and when you don’t have art experience. There was a complex negotiation that went on around that point between the rehearsal and the performance. I’m not saying that either side had a complete autonomy, but it was a negotiation. It explains to you how the aims of the work and the expectations of the people entering the work are a much more open field than one might see from looking at the end result.

So, it’s more like this. I say to Chris  ‘I don’t know those kids.  Do you?’ He responds, ‘I’m black.  I’m from the poor neighbourhood, but I don’t know them either, but I do know Amelia.’ I ask ‘What should we do?’ He responds ‘Well, let’s go and teach in the local high school.’  Six months later the kids have told us what they think.  The teachers have told us as well. We all sit down and say, ‘Well, maybe we should do something about this.’  And then a local journalist shows up and says, ‘I’m going to do a video of this.  I’m so excited.’  And you say, ‘Hah!  That’s interesting.  Let’s expand it to eight other schools.’  So we go to the school district and say –’Why don’t you pay for eight teachers from eight different high schools to come once a month and talk to us not just about media literacy but about all kinds of aspects of the kinds of things that are eventually constructed into the analysis of the work?’

So the teachers and the people like Herb Kohl, Tod Gitlin and Troy Duster and Jeanette Getler (who was a television producer), came and talked to the teachers. The teachers then created a curriculum. They talked to the students and then, out of that, 40 kids came together. We said, ‘Hey guys! We have this idea. Let’s put all of you up on a roof talking about the issues that are important to you.  Let’s give you direct access to television cameras though we will mediate’ Of course there are layers of mediation. Then one of the kids says, ‘We don’t have cars’. This then gets to the question of why is it art and not art –we launch into a complicated negotiation about whether they should sit in cars or in the park and what that means. It takes a month to have that conversation with the kids who are finally saying, ‘Would you adults stop fighting!  Let’s sit in cars.  She likes cars, let’s go sit in cars.’  Then there is a complicated discussion about whether or not the cars should be used cars or new cars.  We try used cars. The kids say, ‘No.  Those are dirty.  They smell. We want really great vehicles.’

Cars are basically a framing device – a mini stage to allow multiple private conversations to occur in a public setting. They are also the means to prevent the circulating adults in the team from impinging on the youth conversations.  We literally had to drag people’s heads out of windows to keep them from saying, ‘God dammit, you said blah, blah.’  They didn’t like listening to the kids.  The kids’ subtitle for the project was ‘shut-up and listen’.

Everything, from the title to the use of cars, to what you wear, was part of the negotiation. The police were greatly involved in the conversation about whether or not they should be in uniforms. I considered this part of a visual arts conversation, because a lot of it was visual. It was how the visual represents meaning – to media, to the audience and to the people participating.  The cops had a lot of discussion about how their role, with uniform or without uniform, had meaning. The discussion included the colour blue, the guns, the holsters, a lot of discussions about that kind of paraphernalia, the vests, the way they’re tucked into the clothes. The kids had discussions about what they would wear.

So these projects are the tip of the iceberg, as Grant said.

In the next seminar we will discuss the issues of display and subsequent representation.

Grant Kester’s response

Possible tensions in the success of this pratice: the UK and the US

I’ll talk a little bit about the nature of this practice in the UK in general.
I assume that this is connected to the success of things like New Labour and also, probably, discourses around the cultural industries and cultural capital, Richard Florida’s work and a whole matrix of things that present culture as a new economic engine that will rescue languishing post-industrial economies from anachronism, etc etc.
Most of the projects that I’m looking at right now are not being produced in countries that are spending any money on art.

Certainly in the US, there is almost no money spent on contemporary visual art by the government, to speak of, certainly not community-based or activist art.  So I still have to wrap my mind around the idea that you’ve actually got a government that will spend money on contemporary art of this kind. It would be interesting to understand more clearly the nature of the compromises involved in this.

This is something I hope to learn about, while I’m here and subsequently – what some of those tensions are.  I can imagine that they flow along the trajectory of having work reduced to a kind of social provision.  Now, to me the problem with that is the extent to which it functions as an alibi for the failure of the State to actually perform its necessary role vis-à-vis its regulatory or judicatory relationship to the market system. You find art being coerced into functioning as a prop for the privatisation process.  That’s where it starts to raise relevant political issues.

I would imagine that’s the point of conflict for a lot of practitioners as well. So part of this has to do with the trajectory of neo-liberalism.  Your comment about the police versus being on the dole – again, it illuminates the significant differences between practice in the UK versus the US, where we don’t have welfare to speak of, any more. There’s Aid to Families with dependent children (AFDC), but it has been cut to the bone.  There is some money for food stamp programs, but the idea that people in the working class would actually go somewhere and get a cheque is hard to visualize because we’ve already been through this – you know, going back to Reagan. Clinton’s dismantling of AFDC was really the final death knell for a lot of forms of social provision.

Suzanne Lacy: They’re working on social security, now.

Grant Kester: Yes, there are arguments to privatize social security and so on. Bush has eliminated the last vestigial expression of government as having any sort of controlling relationship to the private sector. I really hope that that is not going to be the case in the UK and EU. there was a hard-fought battle over the last century to create things like the eight-hour workday and workplace regulations and even the dole itself. If you look at the history of poverty policy in the UK going back to the Poor Laws and the Reformation of the Poor Laws in 1830s and 1840s, it is a fascinating history of struggle to win these concessions and to force the state to take on a regulatory relationship to the market system. It really saddens me to imagine that the UK will go the same the way the US went in this regard.

Forms of patronage: A critical view and a case for optimism

There will be no buffer between the individual and the private sector and so, when we talk about issues of patronage (to bring us back to the practice side), I think, ‘Ok, well we have got the compromises and contradictions of state support’ and then I think ‘What are the other systems of patronage?’  There are foundations, NGOs, universities, state agencies, welfare agencies. There are cultural tourism agencies and then there’s the art market: collectors, the Saatchis, whomever it might be.  My feeling is that obviously, each of those systems of patronage carries along its own set of compromises that the artist faces. When you are working for a social agency the compromises are different from the ones you face having your work bought up by Charles Saatchi or in having your work supported by a research university or a Kunsthalle or a Biennial.  They’re all going to entail compromises in some way or the other, but there will also be enabling potentials in each of those sites as well.

So part of me wants to be slightly more optimistic than people that actually live in this situation would be about the fact that there is money available.  In a way it reminds me of the situation in the US in the late 1960s around the Office of Economic Opportunity. Community Action Programs were put in place, primarily as a way for the Democratic Party to peel off African-American voters from the Republican Party and to enfranchise what had became African-American working class neighbourhoods in cities. The Democratic Party, under Johnson, made a very concerted effort to found inner-city programmes, to cultivate votes, to enfranchise poor and working class populations. They proceeded through a principle that they called ‘maximum feasible participation’ which meant that the money should not go to the political machines that run city government, but directly to the grassroots level.  This is where a lot of African-American politicians like Marion Berry and Julian Bond began their careers, in CAP- funded programmes of the 1960s.

What happened is that some of that money was used to organise tenants to go on rent strikes against public housing managers or to organize to support their interests in other ways. This is a really productive moment at which the role of the state in relationship to the private sector is on on the agenda and openly negotiated and debated. The unfortunate thing in our circumstances (in the US) is that we can’t even have that conversation any more.  We can’t have a conversation about the role of the State in any meaningful way because the notion that the state’s primary role is simply to support and buttress the market is so well entrenched. One encouraging aspect of the situation here is that the state will, at least, acknowledge that it has an obligation of some sort. It opens up the possibility of creating some pressure on the political system.

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