Emma Smith on Participation

Emma Smith

26 Feb 2013
In advance of the next Friday Salon 'Artists and Participatory Practices' on 1 March, artist Emma Smith considers the ethics of participation.

In advance of the next Friday Salon 'Artists and Participatory Practices' on 1 March, artist Emma Smith considers the ethics of participation.

"I live on earth at present, and I don't know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe."¹

The debate around the ethics of participation is ongoing.

Under the last Labour government, a boom in socially motivated funding, while providing much needed support, raised the issue of the ethics of participation with the emergence of programmes and practices that placed the art worker, willing or not, as agent of government, rolling out centralized social strategy. This raised the question for art galleries and artists of how to find positions of autonomy, criticality and distance. The issue was summed up in the warning given by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s and recalled by Jennifer Allen, editor of Frieze, in 2012, that ‘fascism aestheticises politics’ and that ‘a fusion of aesthetics and politics – art and state - is propaganda.’²

Since the Labour government, social practices have often been funded on the basis that they ‘empower’, giving ‘pride, voice and ownership’ to their participants. This aim is self-contradictory in that the terms of empowerment are framed by those in power, and success is measured by observing if targeted groups come to the gallery and do what is desired of them: a process of top down culturation, and a colonial model.

Under this framework, ‘hard to reach audiences’ are positioned in a state of lack that art will somehow remedy, whilst the ‘community’ is seen as something other than the gallery that practice will somehow infiltrate. Under the name of each (‘hard to reach’ and ‘community’), individuals are divided and labeled by ethnicity, religion, sexuality, age and physical ability. As targeted audience members, these ‘groups’ are then positioned in a hierarchy that is both asserted and consolidated through so called ‘non-hierarchical’ forms of practice or learning. However, such forms of practice, through their very framing as non-hierarchical, conceal the social agendas at play and thus become an active form of disempowerment. In the light of this phenomenon the following questions are raised: whose are the terms of engagement and who is aware of them? Under the conservative Coalition government these questions have become more urgent. As the government slashes arts funding and attempts to remove arts education from the national curriculum, we are called upon to prove art’s worth. Encompassed in the call to justify spending on the arts is a demand to quantify the financial and social benefit of art in relation to the welfare state, against which it has been pitted to fight over the scraps. This is of course not the argument to be had. These are not things to be chosen between – they are both necessary.

In campaigning to save the arts we are asked to prove the social worth of art within the terms of government – the very thing that was the point of contestation under Labour. What we once problematised has become the very tool with which we are demanded to fight if we are to save arts funding.

As is often the case, I have the sense of answering the wrong questions, a sense too that the language used in the debate may share the same words but not the same meaning. Returning to the question faced by participatory practices publically funded under Labour, asking not on behalf of the ‘participants’ but for myself, I wish to ask: “On whose terms do I participate?”

In summer this year (2013) I will publish a book with The Showroom called Practice of Place which explores practice as a tactic: present tense practices of place that shape some of the terms I wish to work by. These include collaboration, honesty, friendship, trust, lingering, play, forgiveness, oscillation, reflexivity and commitment. These have been my points of orientation for recent work and inform an evolving process of research and experimentation.

My interest in exploring a tactical approach to practice is to a certain extent a process of finding a form suitable to the type of knowledge I am interested in exploring in the content of my work: knowledge that is tacit, embedded and embodied and informs our intuited relation to place. With an interest in collapsing temporal restrictions to relationships, I am interested in the potentiality of a tactic, as a present tense practice, to give rise to aligmatic relations (where the rules of the relationship are not pre-ordained). The tactic is also of interest however because it offers the possibility of subverting or being autonomous from any overall strategy. Often hidden within strategy, the more fluid tactic has the potential not only to provide a counter position but also a more apt form of navigation. As a present tense practice, tactics do not suffer the same state of lag that strategy has in its application to society, relying as it does on stability and therefore always being slightly out of sync with the ever changing habitus it seeks to order. As a fluid and present tense practice, the tactic exists instinctively in the place of habitation.

But the relation here is not so dogmatic. The position is not an either/or, nor the solution just to find ways of operating independently. There is a fine line here between supposed autonomy and the ideology of the Big Society that we should help ourselves. The relationship between life and governance must be reciprocal.

Bourdieu proposed, “there are a certain number of conditions for the existence of a culture with a critical perspective that can only be assured by the state. In short, we should expect (and even demand) from the state the instruments of freedom from economic and political powers – that is from the state itself"³. And reciprocally, the state, in order to sustain a democratic, representative, diverse and non-authoritarian society that does not stagnate in a particular dogma must provide the freedoms that allow for alternative questions to be asked, to acknowledge that which is hidden within any strategic rule and to adapt its strategy accordingly at each evolution in order to maintain at least as much relevance to any contemporaneous moment as strategy allows. For this the state requires art. As Annette Krauss and Andrea Francke suggested in their development of Foucault’s statement: “…It (art) consists ‘not in showing the invisible, but rather showing the extent to which the invisibility of the visible is invisible’”4. Art both excavates and makes communicable the knowledge in society that is of the human condition without destroying that which it describes through making visible or articulating it. This is a capability I think unique to the discipline of art.

Unlike other disciplines, art is able to deal with the complexity of being without the need to make conscious or articulate. (Conscious and articulated forms of knowledge are those which are by their nature quantifiable - hence why it is difficult to quantify the benefit of art). Our society is dominated by a need for proof, yet we all have things we believe in or feel to be true. Knowledge can also be learned physically, through the body, rather than proven to the mind. On a very simple level, anyone who knows how to ride a bike knows how, not because it has been explained to them but because their body has entered into a physical process of knowing through the act of doing. We have know-how. For me the role of art is to elucidate the elements of being that can only be communicated physically through practice.

Art is important for society as it introduces into the social psyche a more complete sense of being which in turn allows the possibility for strategy to evolve in relation to its population as we are, as opposed to being formulated in isolation from the context of its application, based on what is quantifiably known about us.

(There is a connected and important argument to be made here, which is too long for this entry, on the need to pay art workers a living wage, thus allowing the discipline to be more fully representative of the societies in which it operates. It is the lack of opportunity in production that gives rise to many of the issues of distribution. The real problem of cutting arts funding is not only that it diminishes the quantity of art produced; more importantly it means that art or culture itself is diminished.)

Art needs the state and the state needs art. Not for art to roll out the social strategy of the state, for this is always the position in the cycle that is furthest behind. But for art to critique the latest strategy in order to inform the conception of the next. In order for its policy to be connected to human life, the state must support art’s freedom to make this critique.

This is of crucial importance now. To continue my quote from Bourdieu that sadly rings more true today than it did nearly a decade ago: “when the state begins to think and to act in terms of the logic of profitability and return in relation to hospitals, schools, radios, televisions, museums or laboratories (when) the greatest achievements of humanity are threatened: everything that pertains to the order of the universal that is, to the greatest interest, of which the state, whether one likes it or not, is the official guarantor [...] artists, writers and scholars […] must learn to use against the state the freedom that the state assures them.”5 But in this it must be remembered that an act against the state (by which I mean non-violent) is simultaneously an act for the state, for what else is the state if not the people?

There are many ways in which we participate. We participate through action and non-action because we are involved in the constant process of being. However, participation does not need to mean accommodation, rather the point of coming together is collectively to test out an idea to see if it is helpful, to give rise to further and alternative questions.

The activities in which, as an artist, I invite people to participate are based on ideas that have come about through inviting people with a wide range of expertise to come together and share what they know to try and see if we can develop something collectively that is greater than what we could do individually. The work is an active research process and participation is necessary not for the work to exist but to know if the work should exist – to test if it is useful, how it might better evolve into different ideas or be abandoned completely. In doing this, core terms are honesty and humility, as without these the possibility for people to find their own terms is denied.

We must fight for the political and economic freedom for everyone to set our own terms of participation. A potential lesson to be taken from the ethical issues for participatory practices thrown up under Labour, more pertinent now because of the destruction of arts funding by the Coalition, is that in doing so we must be pro-active not re-active in our actions.

Art is a job that is never over and done.

Emma Smith

¹ Buckminster Fuller, I seem to be a Verb, 1970

² Jennifer Allen, 'A Taste of Politics: Art and the Cold Civil War', Frieze, No. 148, June / July / August 2012, pp.13.

³ Pierre Bourdieu and Hans Haacke, Free Exchange, Polity Press, 1995, pp.71-72.

4 Michel Foucault, The Thought from Outside, Foucault / Blanchot, New York, Zone Books, 1997, pp.24.– Quoted by Annette Krauss and Andrea Francke in [In]visibilities: Spaces of Equality, Showroom 2012

5 Pierre Bourdieu and Hans Haacke, Free Exchange, Polity Press, 1995, pp.71-72.

Emma Smith joins Barby Asante at the 'free' Friday Salon on 1 March 2013 to discuss Artists and Participatory Practices.

The Friday Salon is in association with Art Works and supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

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