Yesterday's BCCA conference has left me with some questions - some of them are questions I have been grappling with for a while, and others are brand new ones.
The main one (which is of course the working title of my PhD thesis) concerns the artist's role. Steve Connelly (Town and Regional Planning, University of Sheffield) spoke about activism in the age of The Big Society - and talked about whether there could be any reason for hope in this age of austerity. He posed the question of whether the artists role in this age is as activist - and questioned what this might mean.
Neil Gray (Variant magazine) countered that the discussion of The Artist's Role raises a number of issues - the main one being in the term 'role' saying that this notion is in itself problematic. Why should the artist have a role over any other person - he also said that artists should stop seeing themselves as artists and should start seeing themselves as exploited workers - and should find common ground with other exploited workers.
The second question, or can of worms, involved considering what the value or worth is, of the activity which artists are engaged with. In particular this question was put to the practitioners in the room who had been paid to make work in West Bromwich for BCCA. We were asked - what is the real benefit of what you are doing/have done, and what do the public get out of it?
This question probably came at absolutely the worst time for me.
I have been struggling with this one myself over the past two weeks. I feel that I have been on a rollercoaster of artmaking for 2 years - not having time to stop and contemplate the direction I am going in, and whether what I think I am doing is actually what I am doing. I am very much concerned with the value and impact of cultural activity on cities and towns (in particular those in the throes of regeneration) and have been involved in an action research activity which has aimed to explore this - but I now realise that the action part has taken precedence - and what is desperately needed is a period of reflection on what it all might mean. In particular as I have been lucky enough to be funded to carry out a number of projects.
Is what I have been doing really useful/worthwhile in some way? Does the public get anything out of it? or is it just a flight of fancy - self-indulgent and exploitative of public funds?
Why is it that artists are always required to justify everything that they do? Is it because we received payment for it? I get paid to teach at the University too, but I do not have to provide a rationale as to the usefulness of this activity - it is accepted at face value.
I think that Neil Gray's point is a good one, Monika mentioned that for her, considering the project BCCA, if it were a personal project rather than one she was doing as a job, she would expect that people would get involved as volunteers. I would not be involved in this as a volunteer - I do plenty of things as a volunteer (AirSpace Gallery stuff), and would not travel elsewhere to do it. Monika said that as this was a project she was employed for, she felt it important that the artists get paid properly, but this would have been different if she were not doing it as a job.
I agree with the ethos of paying artists for their time - we are professionals - being employed on that basis - but question whether what is being said is backed up by the reality of the situation - if we were to look at the payment received by the artists for the amount of work which was done, it may look like close to minimum wage (for example: I received £650 for which I did a 5 day residency, plus 5 days collating/creating the works and information gathered during the residency and one day at the conference - if we were to take each day as 8 hours (which often it has been more than)- this would work out at £7.39 per hour.) For a professional this is decidedly cheap - and seems to uphold Neil's point - so why do we do it?
We do it because it is not just about the money, we do it because we believe in it, we do it because we want to make something and make something better - even if in a tiny way (and I am not saying that we are always successful in this), we do it because it is what we do.
So why should we do it for little pay or for free, and why, if we are paid at all, do we always have to justify it? Rich White grapples with these same questions in his piece of writing 'State of Practice ' from the Interrogation Conference - and talks about needing a reclassification of Art - feeling that some artists have got fat off the opportunities offered by the regeneration processes. He says
'In our currentsituation, where only very recently incredible amounts of money have been spent
on artworks, arts centres and regeneration projects involving artists, and we are now moving into a period where there is going to be less money available, we, as artists, have to make sure our work justifies its existence.'
I am not sure about that yet, but I have met some of these rogue artists (is it them who gives everyone else a bad name?) They are just as bad as the vulture regen professionals, who move from city to city - going where the next haul might be; not because they believe in it, or have some altruistic stance on failing places, but because they see money there. A couple of years ago there was an influx into Stoke - now that this particular flayed city has proven to be a dead duck, many of them have flown towards the Big City, and all that is promised by the Olympics.
I do feel that important information has been gathered out of some of the activity I have been involved in, within regeneration projects over the last few years - but what happens then? As Karen Leach framed at the conference 'Are we just talking to ourselves?' If it is only other artists and practitioners that get involved in the discussion around the findings, and look at the output from the activity, then is it really worthwhile?
Lots of questions to grapple with then.