Hope in dark days: participatory art in Greece

The crisis in Greece has slipped from the front pages as others, even more urgent, force themselves on Europe’s consciousness. The desperate seek refuge here from war, often dying in their flight; their enemies follow with everyone in their sights. But while we struggle with these new realities, the old ones remain. The consequences of the 2008 financial crisis continue years after the event, and nowhere is this clearer, and harsher, than in Greece.

Kathéreptis Athens - 1Last Friday, under the auspices of Culture Action Europe, Agenda 21 for Culture and the British Council, a number or Greek artists and cultural actors met in Athens. They came to talk about mutuality, civil society and what place art and culture might have in the life of the city. That it took months of discussion to get this far is one sign of how much damage has been done over the past seven years.

When there is no money for pensions, what will be left for culture?

The artists I met in Greece work for nothing, subsidising their creative activity with other jobs: one spoke of getting €235 for six weeks of rehearsal and performance. People share their parents’ pensions and work seven days a week without knowing if they can meet their bills each month. Artists, Greek friends, taxi drivers – everyone I spoke to faced the same problems and had been doing so for years. The consequence is a palpable sense of exhaustion, fear and mistrust. Athens, I was told, is emptying as those who can leave in hope of finding something better elsewhere.

Kathéreptis Athens - 3

Despite this grim context, the meeting, to which I’d been invited to offer an external reflection, was one of the most constructive and enjoyable I’ve taken part in. Called Kathréptis (‘mirror’ in Greek) it asked if culture could play a role in helping civil society respond to the difficulties it was going through. The debate avoided the easy ground of culture’s value or the need to engage people; nor did I hear anyone talking up their own projects. Instead people grappled with how to build trust and find new approaches to the deep and complex problems everyone knew. The atmosphere was intense and thoughtful, but also cautiously positive.

In individual conversations, I began to learn about some of the rich work being done with communities, despite lack of funds or institutional support. The next day I visited Urban Dig, in their temporary home at the old Bageion Hotel for the Athens Biennale.

Urban Dig Athens

This group of artists, architects, engineers and activists has changed its work profoundly as a consequence of the crisis, energised by new ways of working with community groups. Elsewhere in the building, people were discussing alternative economies, urbanism, art and politics between the exhibits and installations. Later, I came across a project that is challenging negative images of Greece and mapping grassroots activism in the country, including  health, human rights and education groups: among them are 76 arts and culture projects.

This glimpse of art and community activism in a society under pressure was humbling. If it gave me a lot to think about, it also showed me, once again, how valuable  participatory/community art can be, even in – especially in – difficult situations. Below is a short video trailer for Urban Dig’s Dourgouti Island Hotel Project that offers another glimpse of that.

Whose story is this a chapter of?

In the past 15 or 20 years, the contemporary art world has become increasingly interested in participation. Artists with established careers now involve people in their projects. Sometimes, as in Antony Gormley’s Field, people provide many hands. In the work of Suzanne Lacy, they may be sharing personal experience or knowledge. Other artists, like the Austrian group WochenKlausur, involve participants in forms of social activism. There are many other examples too, each with their own ideas and approaches. And there is a growing body of of critical writing to describe and define this work. Participatory or relational art is, in short, an important and recognised strand of fine art today.

Theaster Gates 'Sanctum' - 1

But what is this work’s connection with the existing field of community and participatory arts? Both speak of participation, social engagement and change, but do they mean the same things when they use that language? That seems unlikely, since the community arts movement began, in large part, with a rejection of the artworld’s values. Have those values now changed so as to embrace the community art world’s thinking about the sources of cultural authority or the operation of art markets?

The point is not whether one kind of work is better than another (although that’s a discussion we might come to). It is to be able to distinguish between kinds of work, the reasons they are made and the consequences of their creation. One way of doing that is to ask whose story a project is a chapter from.

A ‘participatory’ piece created by an artist recognised by the art world will be written about by critics as part of that artist’s history. It will become a stage in their development, a chapter in that narrative. It will be called a work, not a project.

The work of community artists is not usually written about by critics because the artists do not intend it to be about them. It is about the community, temporary or permanent, they have worked with. The project, when it is is good, will become another chapter in those people’s story, a part of their shared memory and as such another tie of what constitutes community.

The most recent community project I worked on was a celebration of the village church in community life, even at a time of diminished religious faith. It produced a book, The Light Ships, a website and three community events. It has no interest for art critics and is only part of my story in the sense that we all have personal narratives of our lives. But the book is on sale in the churches and the experience belongs – I hope – to the communities’ long and continuing story.

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Of course, the artworld argues that it only notices work that has value: what it ignores is, by definition, worthless. That’s the kind of self-justifying argument which once ‘proved’ that anyone who questioned Soviet Communism was guilty of bourgeois tendencies because of their questioning. It’s not that community artists want the critical approval of the artworld – many of them, as I’ve said, question its legitimacy in the first place. What matters is to recognise the difference between projects  in which an artist, for various reasons, invites people to participate in their work and projects in which an artist works with people to make something that none of them knew could exist before they made it together. They are not the same, even if they both speak of participation. And one mark of difference is whose story each is a part of.

Theaster Gates 'Sanctum' - 2

Radical Vulnerability – The Making of Art Lady

The remarkable comes in all shapes and sizes. Last week it was an inspired performance of Mozart by prison inmates. Today, it’s one artist’s work with residents of a sheltered housing scheme on the south coast of England.

Eve Turner-Lee - 4It’s not the project itself that caught my attention – similar work happens across the world – it was how the artist, Eve Turner-Lee, has recorded, thought about and shared her work. One reason for beginning ‘A Restless Art’ is my sense that practice – what artists actually do when they work with people – is not thought or talked about enough . In publishing The Making of Art Lady, a 32 page A4 comic documenting her project, Eve has produced a rich resource for students and artists who are thinking of working with people in similar contexts – and a rare portrait of her own developing practice.

Art Lady is an unusual superhero – gentle and domestic, in keeping with the challenges she confronts, and none the worse for that. But, in common with some of her comic book peers, she is assailed by self-doubt and ethical dilemmas as she learns how to be an ‘inclusive artist’. The comic, like the project it follows, were undertaken as part of Eve’s MA studies. Looking back at the experience, she told me:

‘I felt I was researching both ‘how to’ and ‘what is’ Inclusive Arts. Participatory arts practice was new to me having previously studied Fine Art and aspired to be a ‘solo visual artist’. I found working with others profoundly inspiring. It replenished my enthusiasm and faith in arts practice (both my own and more generally).’

The comic follows the course of her work with seven people as they explore art’s possibilities together. Very early, the project takes a sidestep, when one person wants to do something with a puppet she has made in a workshop with another artist. It’s not uncommon to find that one group member has different desires and the story of how those are fulfilled while also meeting everyone else’s interests is honestly told. In explaining why she chose the comic book format to reflect on the project as it evolved, Eve says that one of her discoveries was that film, which she also used to document the project, was not very approachable to the participants:

‘Many seemed to put it off with the intention of watching it with someone but never finding the right moment. On the pilot project, I had given them all booklets with images of the work we made and I found this a much more accessible and popular format for them.

A commitment to reflexive practice is not unusual (though it’s more often honoured by words than deeds). What impressed me about Eve’s approach was how she extended that commitment to the people she was working with, even to the extent of adopting an entirely new medium through which to practice art as research.

ArtLadyComic1 (15b)

It takes courage to speak about your feelings to those you work with. To share the work not just with your tutor and fellow students but with the world is something else. Many readers will empathise with the artist bullied by dark fears about competence that crowd into some of the frames. But the comic is also honest about how a project develops, when things don’t work or when good ideas emerge by accident rather than intention. One of the most powerful pages describes Art Lady handling a situation where one participant’s judgement undermines another member of the group.

It is one story, of one project, but it is precisely its particularity that makes it worth reading.

Eve Turner-Lee - 3

For an outsider, the comic has the admirable quality of demystifying what actually happens when an artists works with people.  Good community art practice strips away the mystification that makes the artist into a magician (with all the power that brings) while preserving art’s true mystery which is, as Art Lady finds, that you can’t control it so you never know where it will take you.

Done well, as it is here, it’s a kind of radical vulnerability that creates space for the best work to happen. This is a complex issue, at the heart of how an artist establishes relationship with the people she works with. Finding ways to accept and share one’s own vulnerability – honestly – can be a path towards a more equal power distribution within the group.

Slipping into history

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’

L.P. Hartley, The Go Between (1953)

Part of what interested me, in the years I’ve been thinking about this project, was the history of community arts. I felt that the story of community arts in Britain – particularly the first 25 years – was neglected when people talked about socially engaged art and the pioneers, with all their knowledge, are ageing now. I evoked some of that in a long essay, All in This Together, that compared community arts as it was when I’d become involved with today’s much larger (but also much looser) field of participatory art.

But two things have changed my perspective on that. First, others have begun to document, archive and write about that first generation of community arts in the UK. Academics, artist-researchers and community artists have begun using the Internet as place to organise and make available their knowledge of the past. People were already talking about the need to tell their own history at community arts conferences in the late 1970s. It’s finally happening.

And people are meeting and debating this legacy, as in the recent conference Community Arts? Learning from the Legacy of Artists’ Social Initiatives. I’ve just read the interesting report on it by Emma Sumner and now I’m wondering about the influence of a historical perspective. The recent past is a strange place, simultaneously close and remote. It’s hard to see it clearly or assess it fairly. For those involved, it is natural to tell their stories, particularly when they involve life-defining struggles. But what the next generation needs is an understanding of the contexts, ideologies, forces and values involved in those struggles – because that might help today’s artists make choices about today’s opportunities.

And that is the other reason why the historical aspect of community arts, while still relevant to this project, has become less important to me. What seems really urgent is how artists can do valid work with people that makes a difference at a time of danger, upheaval and fragility History matters if we can learn from it and do our work better. Otherwise, I prefer to leave it to the historians. Let’s talk about the next project.

Community Art Exhibition Poster (1986) - a part of my history
Community Art Exhibition Poster (1986) – a part of my history