A Critical Reflection: Reiko Goto-Collins

Seminar 1: Aesthetics and Ethics of Working in Public
Reiko Goto

(Download PDF: Working in Public Reflections – Reiko Goto)

In this seminar we focused on aesthetics and ethics, policy and practice implications of new approaches to art operating in the public realm. I wanted to see some examples of work by artists, educators, and arts administrators in mainly Scotland, the UK, US, Northern Ireland and Australia. I was interested in what kind of issues the core participants would bring to the discussion, and how they would talk about ethics and aesthetics in relation to their work and Suzanne Lacy’s Oakland projects. I was also interested in how ecological and environmental art could be included in this subject of working in public art, practice and policy. In the afternoon, the discussion session consisted of the eighteen core participants divided into three groups. The groups talked intensively for two hours and then gathered together to present the summaries of their discussions.

Three important features of the summaries were apparent. Firstly, dialogue was clearly an important approach in the artists’ practice. Secondly, the constraints placed on artists by institutional bureaucracy were highlighted, such as the scale and duration of projects, funding sources, and the evaluation criteria, which was also influenced by funding. Finally, I understood that the core participants recognized that aesthetics and ethics were intertwined in socially and politically engaged art practice, but I could not articulate how they were recognised the differences in their individual work.

During the discussion session, involving three core groups, I was a facilitator for one of which Keith Donnelly and Kate Foster gave presentations. Damian Killeen, Janice Parker, Jean Cameron, and Sussi Porsborg Conlin and I were deeply engaged with the presentations, and Sarah Males recorded our discussion. For this paper I only quoted Keith and Kate, even though the core’s conversation and the final reports from other groups were extremely helpful and assisted me in my interpretation of the material.

Keith Donnelley, who has twenty five years’ experience as an Arts Development Officer with Visual Arts at South Lanarkshire Council, stated he was influenced by David Harding, who was a pioneer of social art practice in Glasgow. Keith emphasized the importance of dialogue as an approach by introducing a book called EK Modernism, the result of a public art project he had organized in 2005. One of the contributors, Sylvia Grace Borda, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, was invited to East Kilbride for ten months. She focused on New Town modernist buildings that were going to be demolished. According to Keith, the buildings were designed as a model of utopian planning in the 60s. During the residency program, Sylvia spent time talking to the city planners and residents to help understand this development, and created a photographic documentation of the buildings.

I am curious how the dialogue influenced Sylvia to choose certain places, buildings, time, and light qualities to create a set of documentation for East Kilbride. The photographs of EK Modernism somehow look very familiar, even though I have never been to East Kilbride, because they are of ordinary things which exist in our daily lives, such as families, houses, gardens, furniture, roads, parks, schools, and buildings. The importance of ordinary things is often overlooked, and changes are very gradual. Sylvia listened to people and appeared to be tracing their memories through her camera.

Artists can make people pay attention to the way they look at things. Suzanne Lacy, the principle speaker, worked with ordinary young people in Oakland California between 1990 and 2000. We looked at the video documentary “Roof is on Fire”, one of Suzanne’s “Oakland projects”. In the 90s there was a significant world-wide rise in youth culture, predominantly influenced by African American youth. This came with a mythology of fear, a perception of crime associated with youth culture and activist adults. In the public schools, 95 per cent of the population were black. The young people Suzanne worked with during the project were ordinary young people, but at the same time they were different. In this case the word “different” does not mean special or unique, simply that they were not treated or accepted equally as others. The project “Roof is on Fire” was sponsored by California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland Unified School District, Kron TV “Kids First” and other sources of donations. Suzanne was the Dean of the College at the time and collaborated with her colleague Chris Johnson. They developed a series of workshops on media literacy that would enable the young people to deconstruct the way in which their image was being manipulated. The project consisted of meetings, classroom activities, a large scale performance, and documentation. Two hundred high school students, teachers and professionals were involved in the project. Suzanne and Chris took the role of creative artists during the production.

The performance site was a parking lot eight floors up with a view over downtown Oakland. The show started the moment the lift rose from the tough streets of Oakland and arrived at the roof top. There the audience saw many cars randomly placed. Each car was prepared for a group discussion on topics of sex, violence, and the future. Pam Moore, a CBS narrator, explained during the video, “You have seen these teenagers many times on TV, but rarely heard them speak. Tonight they have something to say. Tonight it’s your turn to shut up and just listen.”

On the video, Leuckessia Spencer, one of the senior high school students who worked on the project for six months, said, “Teenagers don’t have a voice in this society. When they have a voice, it’s dictated by someone else, but it’s not the teenagers’.” Almost half of the video consisted of the voice of teenagers. Leuckessia was concerned after the performance that the audience might be bewildered. She said, “Your reality is like a blanket that keeps you warm, or keeps your mind in a certain set. Once you take the blanket off, the cold air will hurt you. If you don’t remove the blanket, you will remain in your reality, which is not a real reality. You live in a fantasy life.” Leuckessia’s quote is similar to the way Suzanne described the performance: “After people experience “Roof is on Fire”, they no longer look at young people the same way as they looked at them before.”

I began to notice Suzanne’s way of observing people was multi-layered. First, she recognized the media misrepresentation of youth in the area. Second, she set up a series of events to observe young people’s dialogue. Third, she choreographed a performance that gave an opportunity to listen to others who usually didn’t have a voice in society. Suzanne’s aesthetics in the video documentary was delineated by both the young people and the audience. Finally, she presented the voice of young people through the media.

Artists practice how to observe critically and demonstrate their discovery to the audience. Robert Ryman, an American minimal art artist, painted a series of white paintings in the 60s. When the audience entered the room of a museum, they were bewildered to find only white paintings. People did not understand what they were supposed to be seeing. If they relaxed and stayed for a while, they might notice each white painting was slightly different: they might find different shades or intensity of the whiteness, almost like experiencing Zen meditation. It may be that Minimal art can lead people to become more sensitive to the environment. If observation is an important element of art practice, and I would say dialogue is a type of observation for socially and politically engaged practice, what will be the next step? When I discover something, I am excited. This excitement gives me a passion to tell something to others, and I would be cautious about the context where I am working on to create a path which leads other people to have the similar experience I had before. The path could be an installation, performance, tour and some other convivial events.

Grant Kester, the keynote speaker, in his book Conversation Pieces (p.106), described Jay Koh, a Singapore-born, Cologne based artist, “The act of establishing networks among Asian artists, writers, and activists across national boundaries is an integral part of his artistic practice, constituting a kind of aesthetics of listening.” Listening to diverse voices and creating dialogue seem to be the keys to this artist’s approach.

Aesthetics of listening must be including people who are quiet, things are dead or do not speak the human language. Of her project, Kate Foster states, “My interest is in the entwined relationships between animal and human lives in an age of species loss.” She works with scientists and experts at the Department of Geographical and Earth Sciences and the Hunterian Zoological Museum at Glasgow University.

I understand that science museums carry out specific museum practices, such as collecting, studying specimens, organizing them, preserving them, and disseminating information. Museums choose the best specimens for the display. Even though different types of elaborate dioramas are created, the basic job of museums is to show the specimens.

Kate creates different ways of relating to the specimens. In a series of works she entitled “Bio Geo Graphies”, Kate made physical connections between the dead creatures and their habitats, for example, hen harriers and North West Sutherland, Cross-bills and the pine forests of Scotland, and the Scotch Argus butterfly and an area between the Clyde and Arisaig on the West Coast of Scotland. Her most recent project is about the Blue Antelope that became extinct in South Africa. Kate describes the skull of a blue antelope in the University collection: “The extremely scarce remnants of this animal are in Northern European museums, brought from the Cape of South Africa by colonial trade and pioneers of Western science.” The only information about the Blue Antelope exists in the UK. Kate works with scientists and museum experts to create a “portable museum” showcasing the skull as well as information and stories about the blue-gray-coated animals. The portable museum will go to South Africa in the fall of 2007, and Kate hopes to find more stories there.

For her presentation, Kate brought a piece of fabric that had army woodland field patterns on which some letters were appliquéd. It took a few moments to recognize the letters, ‘I CAN THINK WHAT I LIKE’. For the final report, the group decided to present this piece as a diagram that described the relationship between aesthetics, ethics and art. It might not be easily recognized, but when people experience it, just like touching the surface of the fabric and talking to Kate, aesthetics is there. Kate seems to be seeking the way to combine awareness of pressing environmental issues and social justice. I am also interested in environmental issues and art practice in the public realm. Before unpacking these, I would like to talk about what Grant Kester talked about aesthetics.

Grant asked, “What is aesthetics? Is it visual? Or is it form?” Kester said, “Aesthetics is the creation of experience, and it unites people.” Kester also reminded us what Kandinsky said: “Art is a universal language.” But Kandinsky’s work cannot be just simply looked at and appreciated. Some background knowledge helps to understand the work of Kandinsky better, for example, in the way he observed and defined the movement of dancers and translated the form to dots, lines, space, and primary colors. It puzzled me again how art could unite people without any knowledge. On the other hand, Kandinsky’s name was embedded in the history of Bauhaus, which was considered good design for everybody and everyday life. Bauhaus was introduced to art and architectural schools all over the world. Bauhaus created design criteria: functionality, rationality and simplicity. I believe the New Town buildings in East Kilbride were also influenced by these criteria. The Bauhaus movement gave birth to the idea of mass-production. In the 1900’s, at the beginning of the modern period, Kandinsky seemed unable to predict to what kind of future modernism would lead us.

From what I understand, at the time, the system of values and ethics were very different from now. For example, in the US, nature was simply treated as a resource for people. In a place like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where I used to live, at the end of the 1800s the land was developed for large industries, and waste was dumped into the rivers and valleys. Not many people thought about each natural element such as soil, streams, wild flowers, where every aspect of nature had an intrinsic value, and the value was intricately connected to other living things, including people. Many species such as the spotted owl, frogs and native plants started disappearing. William Jordan, one of the founders of the magazine “Ecological Restoration” in the early 80s, wrote a book called Sunflower Forest. It was about a new land ethics that was based on a change of attitude towards damaged land and the ecosystem. Prairie restoration was demonstrated in many places in the U.S. and new woodland and grassland schemes were created, like the millennium urban forest project in the U.K.

The new environmental awareness was not only recognized by ecologists, environmental activists and philosophers, but also by artists who were looking at the same issues in different places. Alan Sonfist, an environmental artist, created a native plant wilderness area called “Time landscape” in the middle of New York City in 1965. Joseph Beuys, an artist and a co-founder of the Green Party in Germany, started planting 7000 oak trees in Kassel, Germany in 1982. Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison created a meadow called “Future Garden Part 1: The Endangered Meadows of Europe ” on the rooftop at Rheinauen Park in Bonn in 1996.

It appears then that experts in different fields are looking at the same issues concerning land, ecology and a new way of relating to the environment. Sometimes they learn from each other, but what they offer to the public realm is more diverse and discursive aspects of the subject. Aesthetics should be clearly embedded in the socially, politically and environmentally engaged art, because it was discovered by each artist who went through a critical process which involved dialog and listening to others.

“What kind of dialogue is going on with the non-art models? What is the connection between the way people relate to one another, to their natural and artificial environments, and their cultural artifacts?”

Essay on the Blurring of Art and Life, Allan Kaprow, edited by Jeff Kelly, 1996

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