Common Place

A Symposium on Art, Community and Social Change
05.07.2019 | Redruth, Cornwall

Convened and co-produced by Cornish artist Sovay Berriman, Cultivator’s recent symposium ‘Common Place’ aimed to generate conversation and debate rather than produce specific outcomes. This report is not an exhaustive account, but sets out to summarise some key points and questions that emerged on the day. It is offered as a resource to be used alongside speakers’ abstracts, recordings and other material available on this website.[i]

Introduction:  the key question

How can socially engaged art practice and commissioning agencies act responsibly and ethically to prevent the sometimes negative effects of cultural gentrification on rural communities?

This isn’t a particularly new issue, but it appears to be gaining currency. In June this year the Whitechapel Gallery in London launched ‘The Rural Assembly’, a two-year multi-partnered programme of talks and events to discuss the global growth and complexity of creative practice in rural contexts.[ii]Importantly, ‘Common Place’ provided an opportunity for cultural workers in situ to reflect for themselves on the contradictions and challenges of making art projects in rural locations.

Invited speakers recognised the potential of socially engaged practice to explore new ways of operating – through, for example, experimenting with radical entrepreneurial tactics and countering the homogenising effects of the internet (Rose Hatcher), resisting the instrumentalisation of culture and embracing an element of conflict (Anthony Schrag), lobbying for anti-gentrification strategies and democratising language (Sophie Hope), using biodiversity as a tool for rethinking place and mapping the ‘hyperlocal’ (Owen Griffiths) – and that a fertile site for testing new ways of living and working together might well be within rural communities. They each presented different models for addressing the themes of the symposium, which were further explored through workshop sessions.

What represents genuine exchange? How to establish common ground?

A concern repeatedly raised by speakers and delegates centred on the relationship of the artist or commissioner to participants or communities engaged in an art project: Who has the authority to make or endorse culture, who decides what is good or bad? How do we create systems that allow participants to have agency, and how do these connect to questions of sustainability? Do we risk operating as anthropologists? How can we act fairly to all parties or ‘players’ involved? How do we (including funders) work with communities rather than setting the agenda?

Hope drew attention to the power play embedded in verbal and body language, specifically in the context of project meetings. She encouraged delegates to call out alienating language that sets the tone and power relations of a project from the outset. Griffiths argued that while a substantial industry around ‘place-making’ has created welcome opportunities for artists, it was time to question being ‘parachuted-in’ to deprived neighbourhoods, with the expectation that an art project can somehow solve or quick-fix such real problems as food poverty or mental health issues. He proposed that genuine exchange requires time for connection with community and place through a process of ‘gleaning’, a layered mapping through different lenses (geographical, cultural, psychological, economic, etc.). Such mapping might help to establish the common ground. Schrag’s interest in the idea of ‘productive conflict’ with reference to the notion of the artist as an ‘asshole’ or disruptive provocateur, highlighted how – by reflecting on the different needs of stakeholders within a given setting – the artist can challenge the hidden dynamics of a project to alter ingrained or top down ways of thinking and working. For Hatcher, particular communities coalesce around and invest in a project such as the Fish Factory, because it answers a specific and genuine grass-roots need, and is owned by that community.

Listening to communities:  invitation – conversation – co-production

There seemed to be consensus that socially engaged practice requires listening to communities, understanding their priorities and respecting existing culture/s, so that projects might be co-produced, rather than engineered by any externally conceived criteria to ‘do good’. Responding to concerns about the professionalisation of arts activism, and slippage into the role of ‘cultural philanthropist’, it was suggested that artists work from a position of empathy while acknowledging their own privilege or difference when working with “people who are not me”.  

The complexity of rural communities was discussed. Typically they comprise diverse but overlapping constituencies with different experiences and often contradictory, motivations and expectations. Schrag warned against essentialising and homogenising the rural (‘you don’t need a family tree to show connectedness to place’), suggesting that problems can arise when funders identify, isolate and privilege one community over another. For Hope the key question remained ‘where are conversations taking place and who is around the table?’

Using ‘sabotage’ technique Schrag asked workshop groups to design the worst participatory project imaginable in order to reflect upon a better approach. This exercise was not designed to produce a toolkit, but to identify considerations, ideas and themes. A workshop group suggested that ideally projects should: follow an open and transparent commissioning process, consider possible outcome/s and how individual change can be tracked or reported, treat participants with respect, be challenging but ‘do no harm’, recognise co-authorship, value process and product equally, allow appropriate time for research, delivery and legacy planning, pay artists at the right rate, include adequate facilitation and administrative support, consider accessibility for artists as well as participants. For Schrag, it seemed most important to consider the context and quality of the invitation, to ask who defines the problem to be addressed.

Concluding remarks

As the day progressed it became clear that artists need to influence, communicate and collaborate more effectively with policy-makers.

In terms of responsibility and ethical practice it was felt that artists (and others) should consider the point of their invitation to participate: in the end, engagement (and success) should be judged by the quality of the invitation and the quality of the conversation.

Time (and funding) is often lacking for projects to develop organically, for conversations and legacy planning to take place.

Do communities want socially engaged art projects? Allowing communities to own and direct projects is likely to be more sustainable and meaningful.

Artists are in danger of project fatigue, managing different stakeholders in live situations often with minimal resources, high expectations and outcome targets. 

During the day a number of questions were raised, for example: How do we feel about gentrification and what do we mean by regeneration, particularly in Cornwall? What’s the role of the citizen artist? What are the distinctions, if any, between the rural and the urban? How can we hold the tension between thinking globally and acting locally?’ How can we define ‘radical social change’? How or when should artists be overtly political? Can independent cultural workers deliver sustainable projects and challenge the negative aspects of funding requirements? Are artists thinking about the impact of their practice on non-humans in the rural context? What’s the use of this conversation? How are we going to continue addressing these questions?

The panel agreed that socially engaged art practice can’t fix everything, and encouraged delegates to reach out to other organisations, practices and disciplines. As Griffiths concluded, we need to catch up with other disciplines, to scale-up these conversations, to grow and develop the agenda with other creative thinkers: ‘Art can’t change the world on its own. We need arhizomic way of working to connect with practice about change-making in other disciplines’.

Dr. Virginia Button
July 2019

[i] This overview is based on attendance at all core sessions and two speaker led workshops (Owen Griffiths and Anthony Schrag). Impartiality has been the guiding principle, but apologies are given for any unwitting bias or oversight.

[ii]The Rural Assembly took place on 20-22 June 2019 at the Whitechapel Gallery, London and Wysing Arts Centre, South Cambridgeshire: see The conference was arranged to coincide with the launch of The Rural, (ed.) Myvillages, Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery London | The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2019.