Seminar 2: Question and Answer Session

Seminar 2 – Representation and Power

Question and Answer in response to Tom Trevor: The Institution and My Body

Change and the Institution of the Gallery

Francis McKee Tom, you were very consciously saying that Exeter was an official history of what is meant to be middle class. You then went on to say that you are looking at what was excluded. You were beginning to unpack the excluded communities of Bristol. That was very clear – again – as something to work against, as something to reveal, including the machinations of power and how power works. Exeter was a very clear context in which to do that. Now you have found yourself in a position where you are the power!

I also know about the frustration with getting the institution to change fast enough. We were both saying how CCA and Arnolfini were living on their reputations, how long reputations could last when actually, we as the directors are looking at the institution thinking, ‘This needs to change, this needs to change’.

How do you create change? From the outside these kinds of institutions look ok. They just keep going and they also keep sitting down. We have frustrations about them and about making them more agile, perhaps. But also (to get to the questions) they have their own position in power and authority to represent something. As you said with the flowers, there was perhaps too much power in the gallery when you put the flowers into it. The place is too posh, just like CCA, and that was why I was interested in idea of personalisation.

Suzanne Lacy I thought the flowers were beautiful in their own way. They must draw in people that are very different from the normal Arnolfini audience who would appreciate the beauty of the space and the flowers in the space.

Tom Trevor Yes, it did definitely. It is interesting. Working in a big institution like Arnolfini, people have very different motivations for being a part of that establishment. Possibly most of us here share a common intention in our practice that is about social change. Perhaps (and it sounds over-blown), it is about social justice. Social justice is a great driver. At the same time lots of people within the arts institution are driven by prestige, status and security. The shiny palace does a lot for them.  That is why they want to be a part of it, and it is a very different driving force.

Francis McKee It is also outside of social change. The social change aspect is more seen in public art or outsideinstitutions. You are bringing social change as an issue into the institution. You have to change and create a sort of mobility in and out of the institution to make that work because institutions aren’t always built for social change, in a sense. I almost think that a lot of these institutions don’t care about social change. It is not on their agenda.

Tom Trevor No, they become almost like a fortress to protect modernist values.

Francis McKee Yes, and they’re built like that. They’re built to self protect. That’s why I like the personalisation coming from the Health Service because the Health Service works within little clinics that are quite austere and quite antiseptic. So are galleries. In a way, that is what we would mean by ‘too posh, too quaint’. This place (CCA) can be too antiseptic at times. This room is too antiseptic. Even the acoustic is too antiseptic. A lot of people don’t like to play in it, because it is too clean. That can work against this kind of project.

Speaker Sometimes institutions are resistant to research methodologies by artists and propel the work into a process of display rather than opening up and mimicking that dialogical model. They push us into that moment of display at the expense of a dialogical process.

Tom Trevor Absolutely. It is very easy for that to happen. That’s what I meant by the fact that if you haven’t got a centre of gravity in the right place, then working in the institution of the gallery becomes about disempowering that dialogue. I want to open longer term research processes and residencies. We are not really set up for production and we’re not set up for conversation either. There have been talks about it.  We are set up for delivering products.

Roxana Meechan (Core Group) I just think that Arnolfini is the perfect building to be ‘taken over’ to allow the different members of the community the chance to occupy it for a day, or for a month. [laughter]

Tom Trevor Except that Bristol is quite a segregated city – it is a multi-cultural city and it is also a commuting city. The centre of the city where Arnolfini is situated, is quite homogenous. There are people in an area called Hartcliffe that have never been to the city centre of Bristol.  I think it is incumbent on us to also create dialogue outside the building but not just for the sake of dialogue. I think it still has to be project-led.  It has to be a qualitative discussion, a co-production.

We are working with Helen and Newton Harrison, the environmental artists, at the moment on a project. I felt the best way to really locate their project would be to work with a community-based group called Knowle West Media Centre. This is really exciting – we had a very sparky meeting just recently. I’m looking at Chris (Fremantle), because he was there. It was actually the local community in Knowle West who made films about the implications of sea level rise. The Harrisons project is called Greenhouse Britain, with the same focus. With their international profile as artists the Harrisons realise that the real politics happen when people are doing the work themselves.  That is the biting point, for me.  It is the combination of an art context and that local context.

So, yes, ‘storm the building’.

David Butler I’m interested in this space that you are describing as being too posh, as being quite formal and quite rigid, and therefore there is a certain imperviousness that comes through that. Actually, you are also a large, well-established space, very rich in resources.  I think that is a powerful place to be if you are then interested in an interplay between the inside of the space and the outside. You can work with an awful lot of people and give them access to those kinds of resources.  I can think of examples. They are just within the arts community, though I think you could extend it outside of that. There are emerging groups of artists working in various ways who have been able to do things because they have been able to partner up with large institutions that otherwise they would not have been able to do.  I think there is a mechanism there that is really valuable to get hold of.

Coming as I do from a university I am in many ways in a similar situation to you. It is a university that has shifted over the past ten years in its view of the role it can play within the wider sphere of the city that it is located in. There is now the belief that some really interesting things that can go on there.

I am also very aware from a conversation that I had the other day that, of course, from the outside there are certain perceptions of the organisation.  You think that you are working in a particularly open way, but actually there are perceptions from the outside where people think there is an agenda that is very peculiarly one’s own.  My experience of that is that you, personally, break that down through this dialogic process that you are talking about and what you are looking at is longer term relationships there.  They take time to develop.  But in developing new work in this way, one would generate exemplars for other people who then are going to think, ‘That’s interesting, I can work in that way’.

The problem for large institutions is that they have been working in one way for a time and suddenly you draw back because, actually, it becomes difficult for various reasons to continue. It usually comes from a financial pressure. You snap those bonds. I can think of plenty of examples of this happening.  But I think that there is a really powerful potential when we think of ‘power’ as a way of generating something rather than about a notion of power hierarchies.

The institution as an experimental project space

Francis McKee I would agree with that and I think that is what we are trying to do at CCA.  We are aware of the resources. There are four or five or six different organisations using our cinema at present. They are beginning to programme what they want and create spaces and a calendar and a computer program. We are doing that with all of the spaces, to an extent, right across the building.  We have actually converted some of the office spaces into new art spaces as well. The new model of the CCA is to create a small organisation that is co-ordinated with the curators of the groups, working with them.  I think there are maybe up to about twenty organisations, at the moment, across the board that we are now working with on different kinds of projects.

We run the facility with support from people in it and keep it running for other people’s uses as well. The point of having a public space is that we are not just there for the public, we are there for other organisations.  Not all organisations would want to present work to the public so we are extending the gallery of art to other forms including activists and makers of documentaries. More often than not we will do it for free.

Tom Trevor In a sense, you are lucky in your starting from blank space!

Francis McKee We had to change because CCA as it was just not working. The Arts Council gave us the space and freedom to change what wasn’t working, and to start from scratch.

Suzanne Lacy Francis, let’s extend this conversation from just this organisation as a complex cultural experiment to what you talked about today in terms of public art in Glasgow and The Glasgow International. How does this work with respective practices here, in this region?

Chris Fremantle Sorry, I’m not trying to get him off the hook!

Going back to the flower project that you showed us, there is a fundamental problem to me. It was an absolutely archetypal example of the way the institution behaves. It does a project that lasts one, two or three months. All sorts of people get drawn in. They feel a sense of ownership. Their right to participate becomes part of the institution.  Then the project is over and the institution moves on to the next project such as climate change working with a different community. Actually, the reality of people’s engagement with flower arranging is not three months.  Some of the people who were founder members of the Flower Arranging Society may be still alive and arranging flowers!  So, there is a question of duration, in relation to the institution’s need to continually make new offerings.

Suzanne Lacy I’m not sure Arnolfini is a place where the manifestation of flower-arranging or climate-change research will take place. I think as an institution it is a little bit more ambiguous in my mind as to what that research is.  And to me, that’s the interesting question.

Chris Fremantle But the issue isn’t about the flower arranging or the climate change.  It is about Arnolfini’s temporaryrelationship with communities for its convenience.

Tom Trevor It is very easy to answer that, because …

Suzanne Lacy That’s loaded.

Tom Trevor …because we have long-term sustained relationships, in particular, that’s the way education is practised in those monologic organisations. However, if the meaning of the project is in the dialogue, then, it is important to build on that.  It is not about illustrating a process of participation. It is affecting.

Sustaining open-ended social space: ‘Transition Town Totnes’

Janey Hunt (Core Group) I am involved in a project down in Totnes in Devon called, ‘Transition Town Totnes’. There is actually a ‘Transition Town Bristol’ that is set up now.

I reluctantly, in a way, stuck my head above the parapet and became the self-appointed arts facilitator because nobody else seemed to be willing to even consider the idea of taking it on.  Kicking it off, I raised questions in order to open up the space.

Just to give you a little bit of outline: ‘Transition Town Totnes’ aims to provide a community plan to enable our community, Totnes and the district, to work out how it is going to maintain its community in a post-oil future. This is all about the environment. It crosses from economic, social, into environmental issues. It is actually a complete re-think about how we do our town, our business, our social engagement, our work practices, our travel, our housing–the whole gamut. It is a very big and ambitious project.

I felt very strongly that the arts had a place to play in engaging people in the ideas, in the approaches that we could take because of our ability as artists to be creative agents. The arts group is a broad spectrum of musicians, visual artists, writers. In order to launch this arts group, I opened the space by setting out a range of questions. How could we engage? How could we explore the issues? What could we produce?

What I found is that–at least, what I am feeling–is that that was almost too open a space for people to actually operate in. Despite continued interest individuals didn’t quite know what to do with this space.

I felt that people needed something to kick against. They kept asking, ” What’s your vision?” It wasn’t because they wanted to know. It was to have something to butt up against. I have reluctantly (because I am an artist myself, first and foremost), come to the conclusion that I do need to curate an event that will re-stimulate this whole agenda.

I’m concerned about how to really keep that open space because open space is non-hierarchical. We can actually dream something completely different in terms of this post-oil future for Totnes.

Tom Trevor But do you think that curating is a hierarchical position?

Janey Hunt I don’t know, because I haven’t ever done it before! I have to really think about how I can do it and how I can make it completely non-hierarchical. Hopefully, I can recruit some help! How could you conceive of doing that in relation to CCA and Arnolfini?

Tom Trevor Right. I think David was saying earlier that you have to enact a sense of relationships in the way you organise every aspect of the project.  Perhaps starting from a relatively brand new place is more enabling. At Arnolfini I have inherited an entire hierarchy.  I think of my job as demonstrator. I am concerned with facilitating a whole set of relationships. I think it is actually the market that is really working against a dynamic in which art is concerned with unpacking ideas in relation to different contexts.

I would say, enact the relationships as you have been, and curate the projects.

Qualities and tensions of engaged practice

Heather Lynch I have a number of issues with your presentation. Firstly, Francis has introduced this idea of ‘relational work’ and most of what you presented seemed to me very much from a substantialist model of thinking. You presented artists through objects and artefacts that embodied something of the artist’s ideas.  You also presented us with projects which you named as being participatory, but where the participants looked to me more like recipients and instruments of the artist’s ideas than genuine co-producers of the artworks.

I have worked alongside Jyll Bradley. Certainly many of the people working alongside her were instrumental to her ideas in the sense of producing her idea and her aesthetic vision. In no way were they co-producers nor was their creative expression part of her creative process.

Why do you want to engage with communities in the first place, and what do you think you are doing by engaging with communities? Social policy over the last ten, fifteen years since New Labour has defined agendas of widening access and social inclusion. Everybody wants to communicate and commune with various communities.  There are lots of social critics of that who would say that this was an attempt by government to ‘govern by their soul’ – to use Nikolas Rose’s’ words or in the words of Frank Furedi government by emotion.

I suppose if I want to look at uncensored creative expression by communities, I would go on You Tube or My Space, and not to a gallery.

How instrumental do you feel in terms of government and what do you think you are doing with these communities?

Tom Trevor I think there is a danger. The issue is linked to ‘personalisation’ as an agenda where You Tube and My Space are referred to a great deal. Personally, I am excited about participation.

Heather Lynch But when you say ‘meaningful’: for what, for whom?

Tom Trevor Well, hopefully, meaningful for the people involved, the participants, but firstly for me. The trouble with pigeon-holing personalisation as purely something to do with My Space etc, as located in the digital realm, is that the really political part is not actually being engaged with it.

Heather Lynch But engaged in what?  Are people coming along to arrange flowers in your gallery? Is that engagement? If that is the case, let’s turn to the homeless people working Louis Weinberger, Spacex project. I did not gather anything about these people, the benefits of the project to them, and the point of them being involved. I only know that an important artist came and made a work.  That is what you told me. That is why I am trying to get to who are participating, who is benefiting and who is the audience.  I think that is a real question.  If the audience is continually the art world (which is an incredibly microscopic community of people in comparison to the wider community), then who are you speaking to?

Suzanne Lacy I think these questions you are asking are really key questions and I am glad you brought that up.  But I would love it if there is a way that we can ask them that did not sound like an attack. I have participated in many of these discussions. I find that the way in which I bring judgement to those questions, or somebody else brings judgment, keeps us from really exploring the territory.

There is a kind of apology that I saw inherent in what Janey said, which is, that the space of Arnolfini or CCA, will somehow allow us to have this conversation – the space of art. On the other hand, there is a mythology that I think you are bringing up that there is the artist, the power, the institution and people are pawns within it.  I think that there is much more complexity to these issues, but that these are the right questions – if we can say it in a way …

Heather Lynch I think the presentation really defines the boundaries between artists and community.  The artists all have names.

Suzanne Lacy I have worked in these kinds of territories for thirty years.  That has not been my experience.  We go up to the people, we talk to them – that is not their experience!

Tom Trevor No, she was talking about my presentation.

Suzanne Lacy I know, but even so!  I can read into that process, having heard these issues raised so many times. I think somewhere in the questions of – What is the museum doing? What is the artist doing? What is that process they all participate in? lie a set of important issues. These are not as simple as, ‘Now we are all being creative’. You do that when you are teaching people. You do that when you are participating in some very different kind of activity, but when you are making art, you are doing something with the people that have a range of opportunities, expression  for instance, and a range of impact. Sometimes it can be incredibly exploitative and people are instrumentalised, and sometimes they can come and feel happy that they got to work on arranging flowers in this (by the way) beautiful white space. People that I have worked with appreciate a quality space time and time again. I have said, ‘Wouldn’t you rather have this furniture show room down the neighbourhood?’ And they say: ‘No. I want the best.  I want that one up in Beverley Hills.’

I have a lot of criticisms of museums with respect to this kind of work and perhaps even more of artists. I think we need to untangle the relationship between the artist and the art market, the museum and its relationship with the economy and then artists and their relationship on a very minute level with people and the community.

It is not simple. That is what I am trying to say.

Defining ‘institution’

Victoria Durr There is a lot of confusion and ambiguity going on and I see a lot of what Heather is saying. The idea of social inclusion, I find, has not just come from government or New Labour.  I think it is government latching on to an artistic practice that has been going on for decades – since the ’60s, later in Suzanne’s work and then Tom’s work.

This idea of separating the artist and the museum – you are all talking about the idea of an institution and I would just like it clarified what you mean by institution, because it seems there is an underlying argument of structure and agency going on here.  Institutions, as far as I see them, are made up of people. Tom now is attached to a big institution.  Do you mean institution in Bourdieu’s sense of the art (cultural) field? Institutions are people engaging with these terms like ‘social inclusion’ and ‘socially engaged artistic practice’.  What do you mean by ‘institution’? That is very ambiguous to me.

Suzanne Lacy I have seen people very excited to raise issues. Do you mind if we take three or four questions?

Collaboration and Power

Speaker There is the question of power that was brought up at the very beginning. The idea of being here was to talk about power and re-presentation, if you like. I suppose a question that came into my head straight away was, who asks whom to become the collaborator? Is it the institution, the artist, or the community?  Who approaches whom? That first approach is where the power lies. That struck me quite a lot in the Exeter work.

Suzanne Lacy I have seen it every single way, and I do not think that there is a single way. In the United States I have seen people who, as facilitating public agencies, would go into a community and will show them the sub-artist. In Oakland, we will have a whole process where the host community makes the selection and they are empowered to work with the artist. And then I have seen where the curator gets a bright idea and finds the artist that will implement that idea, in some way, in that community. In between, there is what you call artist-led practice. I do not think any of those resolves some of the really fundamental sorts of problematic power issues.

I think they are interesting strategies. What Tom is doing is an interesting strategy; but not the solution for the artist.

Developing Democracy through Art

Jean Cameron An interesting area to discuss is a definition of democracy in this question. As the Director of Arnolfini, you have a defined space, a defined time, and a defined amount of money.  You are dealing with marginalised communities who need a lot of time, a lot of money, and a different understanding of their space. There is a dichotomy that, at the moment in the big cities, we are having to deal with because the split is becoming clearer, but the vocabulary is becoming increasingly burred.

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Sally Thomson I noticed in Spacex, that the outcome was longer-lived because your relationship was much more with the participants and the support network. In a larger institution you haven’t got access to that support network that you can have in some community projects. It is the level of engagement and the level of participation that actually sees whether a project can be supported into a future ten or twenty-year programme. It certainly depends on your networks, rather than your role within the project.

Tom Trevor Yes, you talked about a ‘common methodology’. In terms of sustainable relationships, you have to engage expertise in schools or in the city repeatedly so that you can address the perception that you are not just parachuting in.
There are obviously methodologies that have been explored over many years for sustaining longer-term relationships.

Power as responsibility

Ed Carroll I have a few questions. I hope they come out as questions rather than statements.

I enjoyed all the presentations, first of all, so thanks for that.

I liked the acknowledgement of being in spaces and of not having to resolve lots of things, but maybe allowing things to just dissolve, in some way to allow the space for that to happen.

The theme was power, and I think it is a very interesting theme. I do have the impression that the question of power is an obsession that we have in contemporary society. I often wonder whether it bears some relationship to a trainer that over-played or over-trained certain muscles and underplayed the other muscles. I think that the discourse of both power or dialogue is in some ways often not given enough space to open up because we over-use the notion of power and are over-obsessed with it.

One thing that does come out, I think (particularly in Tom’s presentation), was a sense of power, not as a sense of, ‘I have the power to …’, but the sense of, ‘I have responsibility; I have ambitions; I have intentions’. I think that, in some ways, when you look at institutions in the arts, very often what you find is a poverty in terms of Me, Myself, as the one that is going to do certain things. Instead it might be interesting to think of a sense of being able to develop an ecology where the institution as relationships can really click into new forms and new ways of working.

I was particularly interested in terms of the patience that you speak about.  I am thinking of Francis’s comments around the Arts Council’s patience with your sense of trying to re-vision, trying to re-ground.  I do not know the English context so well (I am over from the Republic of Ireland). It does strike me that the other muscle that we have over-trained today, is that muscle that is about interpreting; being able to very quickly come to register that adds something up and makes a judgement. We are less able to stay off, or hold back from, making the sum of the judgement.

I wonder whether there is something to be done around holding back from this obsession of power, and holding back from this obsession that we have to summarise so that I can cut you up or cut you down, or place you up or place you down very quickly; and to be able to roll back to try and stay with some things.

Finally, I was particularly interested that you were hosting the Harrisons project. It struck me that if you were looking for that major arts practice/history to bring in that suits your trustees and suits your Board, I don’t know that I would choose a practice like the Harrisons. Their work seems to me is all about opening up questions and holding back from just producing end statements.

Power and infrastructural development

Tim Collins One of the key points of power is when a social system has enough power to actually develop infrastructure. Your institutions can be seen as infrastructure, from Suzanne’s academic relationships to your municipal galleries, to state museums – these are the infrastructure of culture. What you are all talking about is a nodal change.

Thinking about futures, do you see any shift in the physical infrastructure of arts production that will get us more towards some of the ideals that are being discussed in the room and presented by you today? Even in the method of presentation, we are looking at really complex projects presented by you, Tom, but we are seeing images that do not really reveal the complexity.

I am just wondering: do you have any thoughts about these systems, these institutions as infrastructure that may be failing?

Suzanne Lacy I think I want to add to – What is going on in the museums with respect to this practice? What is going on with the market?

The second thing is, we need to drop below the surface. Listening deeply to the problems and the complaints (and I have them as well), we need to drop below to a conversation that is a lot more philosophical. As Grant mentioned last time: What is the meaning of museum space? We have not even begun to touch art school. Let’s talk about power in this position we are right now! What is the meaning of the artist’s practice in the community? Where are those working together or not working together? I think that is what we should be starting with.

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