Date: 30 November 2018
Location: 73 Mildmay Street, London
Facilitator: Joshua Sofaer
On November 30th 2018 I was a participant in Joshua Sofaer's workshop 'No Shortlists', a three hour session commissioned by Axisweb's programme 'Social Works?'. Here are my reflections on the process in reference to the term 'validation' in socially-engaged art practice.
We met just before 2 pm in the activity room of 73. Mildmay, the extra care facility where Joshua and I share a Cubitt community studio. We pay a subsidised studio rent in exchange for four hours volunteering in the care home every month.
I went into the pink activities room on the ground floor to find a few women sitting around a long table surrounded by heavy pink velvet curtains. We introduced ourselves, commenting on the pinkness of the colour-coordinated interior and the warmness of the room. It was very warm. When the others arrived, altogether there were nine of us there, four people representing art organisations, four socially-engaged artists and Joshua Sofaer, artist and facilitator for this event. The artists were Amy Pennington, Elsa James, Juan delGado and Sadie Edginton (me). The organisation participants were Cara Courage from Tate exchange, Emily Gee from Heart of Glass, Elena Gifford from Festival of Making and Dimity Nicholls from Cubitt Education.
Credit: Sadie Edginton
After introductions, Joshua explained the premise of 'No Shortlists'. He put the artists' names into a bowl and pulled them out one by one, matching us to the four institutions. We were reminded that 'every artist had been nominated by someone else in the room'. It was like a secret Santa, each institution bringing an artist and starting a project with a different artist. I was matched with Cara Courage from Tate Exchange. Next we were due to go off for a chat, present our work for 20 minutes and 'workshop together towards the goal of creating a new piece that will go on to be fully commissioned.'
Earlier in the day, I had written 'I am interested in this idea of 'principles of validation', how do we validate socially-engaged art practice? Is validation read differently from institution to institution or between artist and commissioner? How does the structuring of the commissioning process validate different art practices?'
Looking at my notes from before the session, I can see that I felt frustrated with the commissioning process. I am sure it was related to a recent experience that was drawn out over a few months that ended with no commission. This is not unusual in this sector. I hoped that this workshop would give the artists an understanding of the nuts and bolts behind the decision-making and hopefully make institutions aware of the precarity that artists face when bidding for work.
Cara and I went up to my studio on the second floor of the care home where we sat and talked for an hour and a half at my desk. The conversation flowed easily and we seemed to share an appreciation of the issues surrounding collaborative practices. Here I was speaking to someone who was interested in my work, rather than critically examining it and that was already a validating experience.
I couldn't help but compare the conversation dynamic to tutorials from my recently finished masters course. I am used to being in situations where socially-engaged practice is misunderstood, as it still is by many tutors and educational institutions. For this reason, a few preconceptions continue to hold back practice development in this area. One is the confusion with 'community art', another is that tutors assume the artist is not clued up on the ethical dilemmas involved with participatory practice and get distracted by debating these. Often valuable time is wasted in those preoccupations rather than getting on with discussing what the artist is doing with their practice. But in 'No Shortlist' we were able to cut to the chase, as it was established that all involved had a specialist knowledge in this area beforehand.
'This workshop wants to flatten the hierarchy', Joshua had written in the project introduction, but did the concept work in practice? Certainly, institutions hold the power in their relationship with artists; they are able to choose who they work with and how they work with them. Artists are often in a position of uncertainty; we generate creative material before the point of offering up a proposal and then it can be rejected after a series of communications back and forth. In the typical scenario, this conversation would be the equivalent of the interview stage, where the artist would be carrying the pressure of competing for the commission. Many practitioners would feel uneasy in the interview, as of course there are no guarantees. But imagine if the uneasiness was suddenly removed and the work is guaranteed to be yours! By creating the 'No Shortlist' format Joshua has done just that, removing many of the barriers for socially-engaged artists.
Credit: Sadie Edginton
When we were talking it didn't feel exactly like an interview so that changed the atmosphere of the conversation. It felt informal and relaxed, I was able to be more honest. Where I normally check myself, here I felt comfortable to disclose. I was able to share critical reflections on other projects and explain the benefits of particular institutional approaches for artists. We returned downstairs with an understanding that this was the beginning of a conversation towards something happening, with an eye to meeting up again in January at Tate Exchange.
The others returned to the pink room with new collaborations forged; Amy will have a commission with Festival of Making as part of their Art in Manufacturing strand; Juan is going to visit Heart of Glass in St Helens to begin discussing a potential collaboration; and Elsa is going to have a mini-residency with Cubitt Education over the upcoming months.
The workshop allowed me to meet artists who were able to work full-time through their socially-engaged practice. There is nothing more validating than seeing examples first-hand of what you want to achieve. It was inspiring to hear of how Amy had produced her own self-initiated project the 'Mildmay Collective' in 2015 in this very building. The workshop experience was adding to a growing realisation that I could continue to develop my practice in this area.
Did the workshop lead to more awareness of socially-engaged art? Although the workshop itself did not specifically increase awareness of socially-engaged art with members of the public, it introduced all involved to a range of approaches to working with artists and organisations. Connections were forged between the four nominated artists and four organisations that will lead to more instances of socially-engaged art being created. This will create more moments between artists and a range of audiences and therefore more awareness of socially-engaged art practice. The workshop was a starting point, allowing an understanding to grow on both sides of the issues practitioners face, as well as making a space for new ways of working to emerge. Perhaps this will come to challenge the hierarchies in the commissioning process in the future and become a blueprint for organisations to take more risks in commissioning experimental art practices.
Cara Courage, Tate Exchange www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern/tate-exchange
Dimity Nicholls, Cubitt Education cubittartists.org.uk/education/
Elena Gifford, Festival of Making festivalofmaking.co.uk
Emily Gee, Heart of Glass www.heartofglass.org.uk
Joshua Sofaer www.joshuasofaer.com