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Research Reflections: Social Art Map
As a practice-based researcher who worked for ten years as a freelance curator prior to entering the academy, it has always been obvious to me that collaborating with others brings more depth and potential to any research project. The Social Art Map has evolved over 10 years of conversations with Emily Druiff about socially engaged art practice, its place in society, how it’s organised, supported and critiqued. Having both studied MAs in curating at Goldsmiths (Sophie in 1999/2000 and Emily in 2003/4), we have ended up working in areas that continue to sustain our curiosity and enable us to enact forms of socially engaged practice – Emily as a curator and director of Peckham Platform a National Portfolio Organisation that commissions social arts projects and Sophie as a practice-based researcher and teacher at Birkbeck University of London.
Having both travelled along paths that have been predominantly supported through public funding, we were concerned about how and why a growing interest in social art practices was happening in a political climate of austerity and funding cuts to the public sector. How were organisations and individuals, which had built (or are embarking on) careers in carrying out work, which crossed sectors (e.g. art, health and education) and involved complex process of collaboration and co-creation, going to fare under this new regime? The Creativeworks London Creative Voucher award allowed us to drill down into particular aspects of the world of working in a paid or voluntary capacity on social arts projects (as artists, curators, commissioners and as ‘participants’).
From the get go, there has been an interesting tussle between the instrumental mission of Creativeworks London to assist businesses and contribute to London’s creative economy and the input and role of academic research. As a researcher, while I hope my work is useful and relevant to the sector in which I work, there is a role for research, which questions the underlying assumption of funding agendas. Emily and I had to find a balance between the project being beneficial to Peckham Platform’s mission to champion social arts practice and increase sector understanding as outlined in their business plan and how the project worked in terms of research. As research, for example, the project might question the underlying assumptions about why social art practices are worth supporting and the expectation that they should or could contribute to the creative economy in London. These are sometimes uncomfortable conversations, but they happen because of the trust built up between Emily and I and the commitment we both have to exploring the complexities of these practices.
It is these complexities we wanted to focus on in our mapping of social art practices in London (geographically restricted to the capital due to the funding criteria of Creativeworks London). We decided to investigate 5 specific projects organised by 5 small-scale arts organisations that worked with visual artists and had a history of curating work beyond the gallery. We then mapped these projects in detail with the artist, curator and/or commissioner and collaborator or participant of each project. This mapping took the form of timelines on long pieces of paper, with everyone telling the story from their different perspectives of how and why things began, evolved and came to an end. Within the projects, narratives varied of beginnings, middles and ends as the individual experiences merged and departed at different points along the way. The narratives of beginnings often opened up before the official ‘start’ of a project and endings were prolonged by stories that continued after the ‘completion’ of a project.
By sitting down together to do the mapping, there were perhaps things that were not said, but also by listening to each other’s stories, there was a heightened awareness of each other’s experiences, responsibilities and understandings of what occurred. The maps revealed the intricacies of the processes; the inner mechanisms, shared stories and refined nuances that make up the practice. We tried to keep as much of this messiness as possible in the final printed map. This editing process was tricky in itself as inevitably there were interpretations of the material along the way. The individuals involved in the mapping decided to be named which then made it important they had an input into this process, meaning further layers of editing. This was a necessary process, but also one that leads to further modification of what is said, particularly as organisations are presented publicly.
One of the reasons for doing this project was to find ways to be transparent and honest about the issues, problems and relational aspects of the processes of making social art practices happen. We were interested in the language used to justify and explain these practices and the chance to explore different, perhaps conflicting narratives of these experiences. The issue of course, is when the guts of a project are made public there are repercussions for the field. As budgets are becoming even more restrained and as partner organisations are having to close their doors or reduce staff and budgets, the tendency might be to become more isolated and protective of what remains and more competitive for funds. Another option is for organisations to expose the labour involved in their work, the realities of the lives of those participating (artists, curators, collaborators) and the means by which things happen and occur. To reveal the cogs makes these projects solid, visceral objects in the world and perhaps harder to ignore.
With the launch of the map on 2nd December we are bringing together people to explore ways of continuing this work as a growing network of organisations and individuals. We will be identifying what is needed in terms of research and resources and how we can work together to both support, in critical and practical ways, the ever evolving and morphing field of social art practices. For example, how can we bring our understandings of histories and futures of social art practices together to articulate our present positions? Sharing these processes together, coming out of the corners of galleries and communities and baring all, is a brave gesture of solidarity with other practitioners and is hopefully where trust and understanding can grow. The Social Art Map project is where difficult conversations can be held which contest the demand for narratives of slick, polished and productive projects and allows for the necessary messiness of these processes to be valued and explored.
For more information and to attend the launch:
Author: Dr Sophie Hope, Birkbeck, University of London
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