Category Archives: workplace relations

Haiku and Socially Engaged Art

This week I was invited to participate in a one day public forum entitled “Live Art, Social & Community Engagement: Methodologies of Practice” at UNSW, convened by Stephanie Springger and Lenine Bourke.

Here’s how it worked:

In the morning, 5 artists gave brief presentations addressing key questions about the ethics and aesthetics of socially engaged art, community art, etc (the naming of these practices was also in question).

These artists were Leuli Eshragi, Latai Taumoepeau, Rosie Dennis, Cigdem Aydemir, and Lauren Booker, and their presentations were moderated by Francis Maravillas.

After lunch, each of the speakers was teamed up with a “live writer”. The live writers included Jennifer Hamilton, Rebecca Conroy, Keg de Souza, Astrid Lorange, and Lucas Ihlein. About 40 people were in attendance – from what I could gather, mainly artists, students, and curators. Around each pairing of speaker + live writer there was a breakout group to flesh out some of the salient points from the morning’s discussion.

The speaker led the small workshop discussion and the live writer used whatever method s/he felt most useful to map, transcribe, document etc what went on in the discussion. I was teamed up with Latai Taumoepeau, and our allocated theme was “class, negotiation and power”.

Many times in these kinds of events, I’ve used diagrams and mindmaps as a tool to make sense of the complexity of the discussion. However, this time I decided to try something different, proposing to use the Haiku form as a way to engage in live writing.

My previous experience with Haiku is minimal. I’m a fan of the great Japanese Haiku-ist Basho, and his “Oku no Hosomichi” aka “Narrow Road to the Deep North“. And I enjoyed John Cage’s translation of Basho’s Mushroom Haiku.

On the train up to the forum, I listened to a podcast I found by googling “socially engaged art” and “haiku”. It was by John Paul Lederach, and it was called “The Art of Haiku and the Soul of Peacebuilding”. Lederach is a “peacebuilder” who sometimes travels to places of deep conflict, and sits down with people to assist with the reconciliation process. In his talk, he says that he sometimes finds the Haiku form useful in crystallising complex ideas without requiring closure.

I found Lederach’s ideas inspiring, particularly his thoughts on the relationship between complexity and simplicity. He quotes a poem from Oliver Wendal Holmes Jnr:

I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity
But I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

I found this interesting – often in my mindmaps and diagrams, I create an image of complexity. The graphic squiggles and vector lines are sometimes useful in explaining the intractable stuckness of a complex multi-stakeholder situation. But the Haiku has the potential to travel through this complexity “to the other side”.

What, Lederach asks, is simplicity on the other side of complexity? It’s a way of “finding the essence, while holding the complexity, and living into places that we don’t fully understand”. For Lederach, the Haiku can be a way of doing this. If the diagram breaks things down, the Haiku is about putting things together. He describes how sometimes he is able to practice a form of deep attentive listening at multi-party negotiations, where different positions are at odds with one another. At some point in the proceedings, somebody will say something which seems to rise with clarity from all the words. The Haiku at this moment writes itself. Then Lederach, when the time is right, reads the Haiku back to the group – and this is sometimes able to catalyse a deeper understanding within the group of the current dynamics of the relationship.

Back to the present. In our group discussion there were five of us: Latai, Pedro, Stella, Pippa and I. Francis and Stephanie also popped in briefly at different points. We didn’t even try to stick to the assigned subject of “class, negotiation and power”. If these issues were addressed it was part of an organic evolving conversation which was warm, probably assisted by the fact that there were only 5 of us.

Latai began by talking about some performances she has been doing – with fake spray-tan (at Gallery 4A in Sydney) and with white zinc cream (at the Hong Kong Basel Art Fair). She spoke about her choices of these darkening and lightening agents and their culturally specific meanings. While she spoke, I wrote my first haiku. A bit overwrought, but you’ve got to start somewhere:

What is light on one
Background can become very
dark on another.

While working on her spray-tan project, Latai had struck up a friendship with the proprietor of one particular company, “Black Magic”, who was so intrigued he decided to become a sponsor of the project:

Black Magic Spray Tan
Application by machine:
Darker and Darker.

Continuing her exploration of cultural identity and skin coloration, Latai told us how back in Tonga where she is “from”, her family members criticised her for being “too dark”. Perhaps it was the residue from her Spray Tan performance that made her darker, I can’t remember. Whatever the reason, her darker skin was regarded as being at odds with her privileged social status in the local community. Dark skin is associated with labourers and agricultural workers:

Skin colour darkens.
Relatives chastise me for
shellfishing all day.

Our conversation shifted to the Hong Kong Art Fair version of the work, where she used white zinc cream instead of spray tan – partly because of health and safety issues (the spray machine was not considered acceptable for the atmosphere of the indoor art fair environment). Latai didn’t know how to prepare for interacting with people in this strange setting:

Art fair audience:
How do they read all this stuff
Out of its context?

The audience for her work, Latai said, often shapes the kinds of performances she does. Sometimes, as a Pacific Islander, she receives invitations to perform in public under what she feels is an “anthropological gaze”. In these situations, she responds by performing unexpectedly – not merely doing a “nice ethnic dance”, but rolling herself up in long sheets of ceremonial cloth, writhing around, unravelling herself and

Fucking with my own
Material Culture. Fuck
Anthropologists!

At this point in the workshop, the other members of our group introduced ourselves. Stella, an artist and a recent masters graduate, is originally from Taiwan. In Taiwan, she told us, children are given English names. They do not get to choose. She was allocated “Betty”:

Taiwanese Betty.
Names distributed by force:
Betty for three years.

After three years, “Betty” decided to take the power back:

Recolonising
My own name. I choose Stella:
New identity.

Stella goes on:

Shared language shapes our
Collective memory. We
Can decolonise!

In her discussion of Taiwan, Stella mentions its other name: Formosa. I asked her about where that name came from, and what it means:

“Beautiful Island”.
Portuguese passing by shout
Out “Formosa Ho!”

Pippa, who works with the company Performing Lines, told us how she’d been in the UK for 14 years. She loves the context of “community art”, despite the fact that as a category of practice, it has been marginalised by the mainstream contemporary art world (this had been one of the contentious issues to come up in the plenary session of the morning):

Community Art.
Proudly looked down upon by
Snobbish Avant-Garde.

Pippa also made a strong case for consistency of language. She urged us to align the words we use in funding applications with the words we might use “on the ground” while doing community engaged projects. Too often, she said,

Funding proposals
Become marketing copy:
Bewildered people.

Pippa also argued that thousands of useful dollars get swallowed up when organisations have to pay large rents, and proposed that government funding should not be able to be spent on real estate:

Money should go to
People and Artists and not
To Bricks and Mortar.

This led to a discussion about how so many arts workers are chronically underpaid: clearly not a good thing. On the other hand, working beyond remuneration can sometimes generate more joy, because the time spent is not associated with a “job” and its demands for measurable outcomes. Questions arise:

Volunteerism:
Pleasure or exploitation?
And sub-contracting?

Pedro, who words for 4A Centre for Contemporary Art, had a lot to say about all of this. One of his main questions to me was about how as an artist I deal with the power and influence of the institution (in my case, embodied by my job at a university). It’s not an easy problem to negotiate – because when I’m embedded within an institution, potential projects tend to rise to the top of the pile only when they attract funding (whereas in my pre-institutionalised past I would have just done them “for free”). My response:

Institutional-
isation is a virus:
How to immunise?

Word and Image

The following are some notes for guest lecture for UOW subject “Word and Image”, September 16 2015.

Well-known works of experimental film and sound art:

  • Michael Snow, So is This – film consisting entirely of words on screen, one word at a time. Temporal spacing of words creates drama and “characterisation”.
  • Hollis Frampton, Zorn’s Lemma – “found typography” alphabet progressively replaced by moving image substitutions. Duration more than an hour! A form of brain training?
  • Paul Sharits, Word Movie – simultaneous heard-words, and seen-words. How do we process this information?
  • Alvin Lucier, I am sitting in a room – words begin as information, progressively decay to reveal the resonant frequency of the room (music?).
  • John Smith, The Girl Chewing Gum – “In The Girl Chewing Gum a commanding voice over appears to direct the action in a busy London street. As the instructions become more absurd and fantasised, we realise that the supposed director (not the shot) is fictional; he only describes – not prescribes – the events that take place before him. (quote from A.L. Rees, A Directory of British Film & Video Artists, 1995)

Text-dependent artworks:

Book on text and art:

Some of my own projects which use words:

  • Bilateral Petersham – blog which embodies the experiences of 2 months of being “artist in residence in my own suburb” – approx 80,000 words. Presented in gallery exhibition as long bench with pages printed out, visitors assemble own book.
  • Yeomans Project – project investigating agriculture in Australia. Blog stories from experiences 2011-13 edited and published as a newspaper. Prints in gallery contain text as mneumonic/didactic devices.
  • SHELVE – made out of wood, hand cut with jigsaw.
  • Environmental Audit – words in conversations with museum staff and visitors become content for blog storytelling. Complex relationships mapped out in diagrammatic form, as prints and on blackboards.
  • Event for Touristic Sites – national stereotypes stencilled onto white t-shirts. Interactions with tourists in touristic sites. Tourists choose a shirt and pose for a photo. Discussions with participants about ‘veracity’ of the various stereotypes.
  • Various one-off prints using text:
    Bundanon Print (The Feral Amongst Us); The Underground; Adelaide Garbage Map.

….
also – Gysin and Burroughs’ cut ups; Lauren Brown’s listening lists; Adrien Piper’s text-cards for social events; Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll; FLUXUS artists’ use of the “event-score”…

Keep on….

In San Diego, I went with Alex to visit the Centro Cultural de la Raza. There was an exhibition themed around the bending and remix of pop culture imagery for Chicano politix.

At the back of the gallery, both Alex and I were attracted to this silkscreen work by artist Perry Vasquez. The poster responds to the ever-present problem of border crossing in San Diego / Tijuana, where the two sister cities are divided by a massive fence which goes right out to sea:

keep on crossin

It was unmistakably adapted from R.Crumb’s famous Keep on Truckin’ image:

keep on truckin - robert crumb

I did a bit of looking around to see the original context for Crumb’s graphic. Created in 1968, it has been stolen and reused many many times. One account has it that this became an “iconic image of optimism during the hippie era.” To which, the ever restless Crumb responds:

I became acutely self-conscious about what I was doing. Was I now a “spokesman” for the hippies or what? I had no idea how to handle my new position in society! … Take Keep on Truckin’… for example. Keep on Truckin’… is the curse of my life. This stupid little cartoon caught on hugely. There was a D.J. on the radio in the seventies who would yell out every ten minutes: “And don’t forget to KEEP ON TR-R-RUCKIN’!” Boy, was that obnoxious! Big feet equals collective optimism. You’re a walkin’ boy! You’re movin’ on down the line! It’s proletarian. It’s populist. I was thrown off track! I didn’t want to turn into a greeting card artist for the counter-culture! I didn’t want to do ‘shtick’—the thing Lenny Bruce warned against. That’s when I started to let out all of my perverse sex fantasies. It was the only way out of being “America’s Best Loved Hippy Cartoonist.”

Productive Anonymity

The ability to experiment without much at stake except your own process of discovery… time to think and to not think; to look at art; to waste on dead-end art projects that no one will ever see again and that your best friends may remember better than you will … the ability to do things with just enough attention to make you feel like you are part of a world and can go forward, but not so much that your gesture becomes a trademark and a creative prison.

Artist Mira Schor, from an article on The Brooklyn Rail, Feb 2013.
Quoted in the book The Art of Critical Making, in conversation by Patricia C. Phillips, with Silvia Acosta, Daniel Lefcourt, Andrew Raftery, Kevin Zucker, Cas Holman (all staff at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)).

Workplace Relations: The Allan Kaprow Papers

kaprow compositions book from the 1940s

Allan Kaprow – University lecture notebook from the 1940s (Getty Archive)

I’m in Vancouver right now. Recently Lizzie, Albie and I visited L.A., San Diego, San Francisco, and Portland. I’m pursuing the intersections between socially engaged art practice (and its pre-histories) and environmental management situations, as I try to work out how best to press on with Sugar vs the Reef.

In L.A., the Getty squeezed me in for a preview of some of Allan Kaprow’s archives which are housed there. I wasn’t able to spend days and days rummaging through Kaprows’ stuff, so it was more of a “triage”, to work out whether it’s worth coming back for a longer visit.

And it would be worth it for sure. Here’s a brief excerpt from the spiel about the Kaprow Papers:

The Allan Kaprow Papers offer comprehensive documentation of an artistic career that spanned the latter half of the 20th century and continues into the 21st. Arranged chronologically so as to demonstrate the artist’s passage from student of art and art history to practicing artist, art theorist and art educator, the collection contains drawings, term papers and notebooks from Kaprow’s student days, followed by ca. 250 Project Files, comprising the complete extant documentation of Kaprow’s Environments, Happenings, and Activities.

There’s loads of stuff in there that hasn’t seen the public light of day, not to my knowledge at least – including many video tapes documenting Happenings, and unedited audio tapes from Kaprow’s public talks and lectures.
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Servile Youth by Lisa Kelly

Way back in September 2002, Lisa Kelly wrote a long, detailed, wide ranging, muckraking essay about artist run galleries, art writing, and careerism…

The essay, entitled “Servile Youth” was originally published in the Elastic printed project, Sydney 2002/2003 in the chapter ‘Points of View’ coordinated by Anne Kay.

I stumbled across a pdf copy recently, and it struck me that it was just as relevant as ever. Lisa tells it like it is.

Read it here [pdf].

Does postgraduate study make for better art?

At the ACUADS conference a few weeks back, the final panel discussion tackled this question:

“What impact are higher degree research programs having on emerging trends and themes in contemporary art?”

There were some interesting responses from the panel which included Tony Bond, Rebecca Coates, Chris McAuliffe, and Kate Daw. But nobody seemed to answer the question in the very literal way I wanted it answered. So I threw a more specific and perhaps reductive question to the panel:

“Do artists who complete PhDs produce better art than they did before?”

(M’colleague Maria Miranda has gone on an interesting excursion with this question at her blog, over here.)

After much humming and harring, the panel produced no real consensus – but if anything, the answer did seem to be tending towards the negative: “No – PhDs in creative practice do not lead to discernably better artists, nor the production of better artworks”. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but really I was a bit shocked (I feel naive even writing that here). So, at the risk of cementing my position as a naive utopianist, here’s my opening gambit:

Surely one of the fundamental reasons for the existence of creative practice based PhDs should be that they result in better artworks. Surely? If not, then what’s the point?
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‘Socially Engaged Artists’ are people who…

‘Socially engaged artists’ are  people who get to count as artists be virtue of their usual or self-defining artwork-making role within the artworld.

They then make use of this status (exploit it, if you like) by messing about in the real world outside the artworld, making things and doing things that they want people who normally would never go into an art gallery to look at and think about in the best sort of open-minded way in which people who do go into art galleries look at and think about things.

…that is to say, as sites of potential illumination (the acquisition of new memes) in any of the domains of human concern: moral, political, economical, scientific, legal, charitable, religious, and whatever. Even aesthetic illumination if there is such a thing (whatever, if anything, an aesthetic illumination may amount to that beats seratonin stimulators).

-Donald Brook, email to Lucas Ihlein, 14 September 2013.

Reconciling Values

Recently I posted these brief thoughts on the issue of Transfield’s sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale, over at the Open Engagement blog: http://openengagement.info/home/archives/5200. The blog post is part of a series that OE is hosting, where 100 questions are posed, broadly addressing ethics and aesthetics around socially engaged art practice. The series is co-ordinated by Gemma Rose Turnbull, Ariana Jacob, and Jen Delos Reyes.
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