Friday, March 13, 2009

Headtalk 5

To mark the end of my Longhouse Action Research project I wanted to explore some of the questions and concerns that had been raised over the 9 months of the project. I approached Bernard and Brian - fellow AirSpace artists and organisers of the Headtalk forum - a creative space for artists to meet and discuss issues and concerns which arise from contemporary practice. They agreed to allow me to present my findings, and open the dabate within the already established forum. The evening forum coincided with a visit from 5 Polish (cultural animation) practitioners, who ahd been participants in my regeneration tour (another output fo my action research project.) This was really great, as they were able to bring objectivity to the discussion. Bernard and Brian have documented the evening thoroughly on the Headtalk blog and have given me permission to duplicate it here. A very interesting and useful discussion was had, and the attendance was unprecidented; standing room only - which was really encouraging. Here is the Headtalk documentation of the event by Bernard Charnley and Brian Holdcroft, along with images by Glen Stoker.

"What is the Artist’s Role in the Changing City? Does the City Need a Hero?

The event took place in our new venue, Fat Cats, with a friendly and helpful staff who managed to squeeze all twenty plus into a lovely, warm upmarket snug; we will have a choice of a larger room next time so may take this up. This was the first occasion of a participating artist in the forums offering a presentation, and we hope it will be the start of many to come.

1. Extract from Blog entry

The presentation by Anna and the Polish artists gave a richly varied account of the problems and issues met by artists of any shade working in the public arena and this was built upon in the discussion with really informative contributions. The value was in getting a clearer picture of approaches we as artists or arts engaged can develop that address the issues of inclusive participation, coherent funding support, conflicting interests between marketing and community. On the back of this shared ground clearing, we think the momentum needs carrying forward with focus on our city of Stoke-on-Trent. In this respect, another HeadTalk forum might be around shaping some kind of manifesto (not the dogmatic kind) for arts and regeneration in the city, a bottom-up set of proposals around which artists and arts active people can begin to push in some unity for changes in policy and funding. This could go hand in hand with a strand of public art ‘events’, agit prop type that can be funny, participatory or media attractive to promote attention. Here our public space art/arts practitioners can maybe lead the way…our heroes!

All easier said… but recent history seems to show that gentle negotiations behind closed doors on its own doesn’t stir our leaders into any joined up thinking. Perhaps that level of exchange, important though it is, needs geeing up by taking the issues into the public space to get more focus on how artists and the arts can work inventively with regeneration and deserve proper support, in a way that brings the people of the city on board as well, not just the developers and their interests

2. Summary of meeting

We have drawn on the recording for this and it is hopefully a fairly accurate shortened transcript – took hours to do so we might look at some other way of reporting next time. Or maybe give ourselves more time to publish….. Anyways, we think there is a real value in being able to look back on what was discussed – tell us what you think!

A special feature of the occasion was the presence of a group of Polish artists, who work in the public arena in their country. Details of the group are appended to this report. Martin Webster, who runs an intercultural project at Staffs Uni, informed the forum at the end that the connection with Poland and these artists was ongoing and invited further engagement by local artists/arts people locally.

After an introduction by Brian Holdcroft, outlining the progress of HeadTalk and mentioning the HeadTalk blog for everyone’s reference, he introduced Anna as a first presenting artist and welcomed the Polish artist group.

Anna Francis then began her presentation by outlining the frame of her intro, which was to promote discussion of our responsibilities as artists in a time of great changes to the city. The experience drawn upon to elaborate some of the questions and issues was her research bursary from the Longhouse (West Bromwich) public arts funding firm, which Anna has used to look at arts funding and policy in Stoke-on-Trent. A range of questions were then introduced and with reference to a pre-circulated document ‘Interruptions’ by Malcolm Miles.

What does this city really need? With the background context of a regeneration policy by the council some ten years behind many other cities; a weak take up of existing levers like the ‘percent for art’ and a poor evaluation process resulting in fragmented approaches; all of this against an accepted understanding that arts are crucial for the regeneration of places and communities.

Referring to Miles, Anna then raised the issue of avoiding a ‘quick fix’, cheap social therapy role.

But then how does the city develop a cultural project that avoids these negatives?

Examples of different approaches were outlined with the Gardens Project in Glasgow and In Certain Places, Preston as good examples of coherent planning and involvement of the communities affected. The latter city is especially relevant as it is a post-industrial city like Stoke-on-Trent.

These examples lead to another question, whether the model that works in one city can be mapped onto another?

The introduction of these questions by Anna was followed by a more detailed presenting of her own work including a ‘tour’ of regeneration sites within the city with the Polish artist group leading to more specific questions about how artists in the city can begin to make things happen; “do we need to be more pushy” or “louder”. Another related consideration is how this all works for an artist when they go to a different city or community? This is the problem of being “parachuted in”, giving the example of the “Beyond Bricks” project being developed at present in Birmingham, raising the question of divided responsibilities between commissioners (and their agenda) and those towards the people living in the place where these art projects take place.

With this last point in mind, Anna handed over to David Sypntewski of the Polish artist group (pag) and then each member of the group described their role and work in the group, which is based in Warsaw. Details of the different activities can be seen on the web site addresses below. Their focus is on the non-tourist neglected communities of Warsaw, such as Praga, but also in smaller villages and towns and also in Crakow. Varied forms of engagement are used, employing the specialist skills of the group (theatre, photography and animation). These range from a physical alternative tourist map and tour, to a software game using the knowledge of the area from residents. This game caught on and became a popular activity (the game has an English translation and can be accessed from their site).

The aim is to give the more excluded populations of places a sense of ownership and positive identification, an issue that is relevant for public art in any location.

As Aga Pajaczkowska explained, the group describe themselves as ‘cultural animators’, an alternative description for artists and maybe a better term for artists/arts people working in the public arena. This very informative report was rounded off with a description of how the group encourage forums with other arts people, and towards educating local authorities in the support for culturally inclusive activity.

The forum then took a drinks break (we must have bought enough as we have been invited back and with a larger room if we need it J) and the YouTube video about the Preston project was shown with the techy help of Andy Branscombe from AirSpace.

On gathering again, David of pag related an experience in Hanley of being told he could not use his camera by security staff for prevention of terrorism reasons, a comment on the changing freedoms of the public space.

The discussion phase was then introduced with a question arising out of the different presentations and examples: who is the public of public art? “..Where does the dweller of the city come into this..”. this raised the subject of how the artist sees or defines the public they engage with?

The point was then made, with a graphic example from local practice, that we might think we know who the art is for and then discover that the people it is intended for (our conceived public) have a different response to what we might expect

“..we might think it is for them but they might not think it is for them..”

The suggestion was then made that it might be a question of educating people in the city to recognise that public art is for them, “..maybe it is about empowering people in Stoke-on-Trent…”.

This part of the discussion touched on the question of acceptance or rejection of public art and why. It was pointed out that there will always be a bit of both simply because people have choices, but the relevant question for artists is

“…have we explored what people want?”

This question shifted attention to what kinds of art are more acceptable than others and the distinction was made between “works of art and public decoration” . It is an easy choice that funders tend towards, of “making the place look nicer” but without “depth” in the work, and simply acting as a facade to cover up deeper problems.

This point was picked up with the example of Toxteth in Liverpool, where historically grand houses now in neglect or abandonment were given this art treatment on boards filling the windows, “…superficially very lovely in the same way as eating something sweet makes you immediately go ooo! that was nice, but afterwards you come down and then what’s left behind that, when those boards come down what’s left in place of them?…”.

Another example was given from the same area of an exchange with two ex-residents, who talked about how they were bitter about the way they had been moved out of a very meaningful place for them and now didn’t like to pass the houses with what they saw as “purple stuff” all over where they had lived, “..all they could think about was the loss..”.

These exchanges brought out the importance of the relationship with the people of an intended art location or wider city project. The next point raised was that the public is a shared experience of a place despite differences, in that sense we are all the relevant public, perhaps to the extent that we invest our lives in a location.

The discussion returned at this point to how awareness or ownership of the idea of art by the people of the city is often lacking, despite a rich tradition of art activity in pottery production. How to bridge the gap between local experience and tradition in art engagement and acceptance of other kinds of art?; to get over to the people of the city that “they’ve got the ability and they’ve got a say.”.

Another example, taking up the baton of this issue of barriers and engagement, illustrated how it can work, especially if it occurs over time. The location was Barcelona and a slum clearance area where a lot of poverty aid money was used to clear sites for developers to move in, but perversely, to bring in affluent residents. Public art was commissioned to assist this approach. Around the edges of the development however, many neglected empty slum properties were squatted by other artists who became part of the remaining community. Over time, these artists developed gardens for the estate and in which art works were placed. The success of this exchange led to official support and eventually changed the whole approach to regeneration in the city, “ …the artist intervention there changed the way the nature of the way regeneration, local people and art, work, so instead of art being…..imposed as decoration, it was actually what changed everything..”

Also, the relevant public are firstly then those who work with the artist, not just as receivers.

This led to the observation that public art isn’t just about developers and their agendas and that artists are better positioned and equipped to connect with the people and their needs where an art placement or activity is proposed. This led to an appreciation that artists need to promote a space of exchange where artist and public meet on an equal level, while recognising the particular role of the artist.

It was then suggested that for this to work some kind of representative structure should be part of any public arts initiative, enabling a relevant and informing input from the people affected.

This raised the question of how funding creates excluding structures that make it difficult for commissioned artists to develop the liaisons with communities that they want. The discussion then moved on to a further appreciation of how spontaneous independent actions are important alongside the properly funded projects but that while different models of action are relevant, we need to keep an eye on the problem of being used as a cheap fix.

The Polish group were then asked about their experience and interestingly they drew a parallel with Warsaw in the level of demolished sites in our city; that in Stoke there is more waste land per person than anywhere else in the country. They also commented on the distinct industrial architecture and suggested these should be used where possible; that this kind of use is very popular in Poland, to establish “new aims and purposes”. There was also a recognition of similar problems, in particular that of knowing what you want to do, but not being able to get proper funding because of conflicting interests of developers and other interested parties or officials. A further point made was that it is important to establish communication with local officials or agencies, which can help in recognition of insitutional constraints and inform action better.

This reflection brought forward the recognition that artists/cultural animators of any kind joining together provides more of a united front in effectively addressing these more political dimensions.

Returning to the question of relevant dialogue with residents or communities, an observation was made based on experience with youth groups locally, that there is a firmly embedded cynicism at the history of art projects in the area, and illustrated the need to change existing policies to become more inclusive. “..there is a whole raft of knowledge and really switched on people who genuinely don’t feel they have a voice and are very aware there are massive changes about to happen to this city..”.

This contribution prompted further recounting of the richness of stories and history of communities locally and the need to bring a connection with these into any policy approach towards public art.

The ability of existing decision makers with hands on the “purse strings” to recognise these needs came under scrutiny. It was commented that there is a “bottleneck” at the moment because of lack of awareness and “integration” by the council authorities and politicians and yet most funding, including Arts Council, can only happen with local council approval. It was then put that this means we do need to be more vocal, to return to an earlier question, in order to get seen and heard. Also, demands on sterile detailed justifying of art work needs to be relaxed to allow a level of “openheartedness” and natural inconsistency of discovery and development of art projects.

This returned the discussion finally to the secondary forum title question: Does the City need a hero? and the observation that rather than a hero we need a champion, “and we need several champions” and not just in the arts but across the city to promote an atmosphere of acceptance and ownership of the art that is done. Also that a vision of this engagement would be when funding for public art comes from and reflects all the agencies and public services in the city, who in one way or another want to fund art in their workplace. Art then “..becomes integral to the thinking of all purse string holders..” It is about capturing the imagination of decision makers to the idea of art as relevant and necessary.

The discussion moved on to a comparison with Warsaw again and in particular architecture, and how this can be the most obvious expression of disconnection with the population, when there is a divide between them and the authorities. In turn this brought out a distinction to be made between ‘re-development’ and ‘regeneration’, when the latter is understood to include “dwellers” in plans on an equal footing, while the former is more about the interest of investors alone.

The discussion ran out of time and finished with an example from West Bromwich of an accelerated arts building that was done without connection with the community and is now an underused negative presence; the fear being that local planners are going down the same route and could damage the “soul” of the city.

The forum was brought to a close with recognition of the quality of the presentations and the many contributions to discussion made."

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