One way of understanding community art – using that term very loosely – is through its relationship with power. Any form of artistic work that, in one way or another, hopes to bring about change cannot avoid responding to existing structures of power and the institutions that organise them socially. Government and policy; state agencies; public cultural institutions; funding bodies; education and social services departments; the criminal justice system – there is a very long list of societal institutions with which artists working for change at community level engage.
That engagement takes an equally wide range of forms. It may involve applying for funds to finance the work they want to do. It may involve gaining access to a cultural powerhouse such as a gallery or theatre. It may involve negotiating with schools, prisons or hospitals to find common ground on which a project might happen. Compromise is inevitable and an artist’s best safeguard in these relationships is to be clear about what they are – and what they are not, prepared to accept.
What kind of relationship is possible – and what kind is wanted – varies according to the artists involved and the socio-political context in which they are working. In Alexandria (Egypt) one organisation I met has had to create space between powerful and opposed ideologies. Getting to the point where the police who once shut them down is asking to exhibit work on their premises is remarkable – and full of new risks and tensions. The ‘urban art actions’ of the Contemporary Art Center in Skopje (Macedonia) is often in direct confrontation with political projects. The installation last year of three shark fins in the Vardar river – where the city authorities have been expensively re-fronting the city as Hellenistic pastiche – was typical of the fine line they have been treading. It may be only the numbers of people who see and enjoy their short-lived projects that has protected their space of operation to date.
Elsewhere, in less obviously tense situations, the principle obstacle faced by artists may be indifference. That is most obvious in a refusal to provide funding – easily justified in countries facing public spending cuts, though few state cultural institutions have closed. But it may also be more subtly, even unconsciously, expressed, for instance in not replying to calls and emails, not attending events, not reviewing shows and a hundred other signs that signal your work is taken to be of no value. I’ve met many groups, such as Urban Dig in Athens (Greece) or Pele in Porto (Portugal), who do good work in uncertainty and with minimal resources. Even when doors do open, they can close just as inexplicably. Winning Spain’s National Theatre Award in 2014 has not made Grupo Chèvere, from Santiago de Compostela, more financially secure in their home town.
Where negotiations are possible, the imbalance of power – say between a prison governor and an independent theatre company – demands great diplomatic skill. Geese Theatre, from Birmingham (UK), have been creating life-changing experiences within the criminal justice system for many years, carefully walking the boundary between individual and institutional interests. It can be very difficult, if you work with power, not to accept some of its thinking, even unconsciously. How can an artist work creatively in schools except by thinking about learning outputs if the whole system is geared towards such ideas? Since the 1990s, the British participatory arts sector has found receptive partners in health, education, social care and other public services. It has consequently grown in scale and reach, often doing valuable work with people in great need. It has also influenced the culture of some of those services. But it could also be argued that it has lost much of its independence and capacity for creative action. In parts, it may have become an underfunded and insecure form of ancillary service.
There is no easy or simple answer to these dilemmas. Every artist, every group, must make their own choices, in the very real context of having to pay the bills and put food on the table. Virtue signalling may make us feel better about difficult choices, but only at the cost of self-deception. Still, as I reflect on the work I’ve seen and been involved in over many years I find myself appreciating the indifference of the powerful (including those in the art world) more than I once did. There are so many reasons to want their attention but with it comes – always – more or less subtle constraints on what you can do. The freest and most creative artistic work, it seems to me, is often happening in the gaps and on the margins, in the places and among the people who are least regarded. That is not an answer, and still less a goal: but it may still turn out to be a good place to be in difficult times.
Below: a 2 minute video that gives a flavour of Urban Dig’s work in Athens, now with English text