Vanishing into action: Art beyond the contemporary

A Hobby wiithout a Home: I met a woman in the city who had made her bed in front of Seven Eleven. She was friendly and open. It surprised me that she would rather sleep on the street than at a homeless shelter, despite the fact she had been attacked several times by drunk people and her belongings stolen or removed by the council. She used to be a potter and made urns for the deceased. She had no place to work as her equipment is stored at her son’s place in the countryside. She has been on the streets for a year but has not told her son where she is. From the project The Big Umbrella & ABC Fact Check 2019 © Peter Pizzati, Kaihao Luo and Stine Bang Hansen:
A Hobby without a Home: "I met a woman in the city who had made her bed in front of Seven Eleven. She was friendly and open. It surprised me that she would rather sleep on the street than at a homeless shelter, despite the fact she had been attacked several times by drunk people and her belongings stolen or removed by the council. She used to be a potter and made urns for the deceased. She had no place to work as her equipment is stored at her son’s place in the countryside. She has been on the streets for a year but has not told her son where she is." From the project The Big Umbrella & ABC Fact Check 2019 © Peter Pizzati, Kaihao Luo and Stine Bang Hansen

Suhail Malik, co-director of the Master of Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London, argues in a forthcoming book that there is an urgent necessity for “art to exit from Contemporary Art”. This is not a paradox, but a clear differentiation between what he considers the purpose of art to be and the neoliberal system that in his view defines the term Contemporary Art. As such, Contemporary Art describes the dominant system of art and not simply art made in the present time. Malik is not alone. Even key players within the contemporary artworld are despairing of the malaise that has overtaken it. In 2012 the art critic Dave Hickey, a long-term advocate of art in a free market economy, announced he was quitting an artworld he is reported to have described as “calcified, self-reverential and a hostage to rich collectors.” “It’s nasty and it’s stupid,” he said, “Art editors and critics—people like me—have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people.”

The BBC’s arts editor, Will Gompertz, agrees that “money and celebrity has cast a shadow over the artworld which is prohibiting ideas and debate from coming to the fore.” In his view, what is needed most is for “artists to work outside the establishment and start looking at the world in a different way—to start challenging preconceptions instead of reinforcing them.” If this is the state of the arts, what is the purpose of an art-school education? Is it a training for employment within the existing cultural institutions? Is it a means to personal fulfilment and self-actualisation? Or is it an opportunity to challenge preconceptions about art, about life, about the societies in which we live?

I spent much of 2018 in Scotland exploring this question with the academic staff of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (DJCAD) in the University of Dundee. We began with the premise that many of the students currently passing through the college may, on current trends in life expectancy, live to the end of the century. At the same time, other trends—in climate change, in social fragmentation and economic disparity, and in the accelerating capabilities of artificial intelligence—suggested considerable turbulence as the century progresses with some believing we face existential threat. In that context, how does an education in the arts prepare individuals to become active citizens capable of engaging and helping to shape a sustainable and humane future?

The academic staff and I covered a range of subjects over three separate seminars including questions around how best to prepare students for the precariat or, should Universal Basic Income come to pass, a world “post work.” Metrics were also of considerable concern. The act of measuring changes the thing measured. In educational terms, if advancement requires that one pass an exam or be judged by an assessment process, the tendency is to learn what is required for the exam or create what best matches the tick boxes of assessment. More troubling still is the way in which measurement tends to breed conservatism. As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted, the vested interest of the current elite at any time tends to suppress new and original ideas in favour of “conventional wisdom”—that is, the “wisdom” that ensures maintenance of their elevated status while hampering wider collective progress.

One way in which the elite suppress progress is by demanding precision; a precision that privileges the familiar and suppresses nuance. He put it this way: “The precise, to be sure, is usually the old and familiar. Because it is old and familiar, it has been defined and measured. Thus, does insistence on precision become another of the tautological devices by which the conventional wisdom protects itself. Nor should one doubt its power.” The increased focus on validation which attended the absorption of art schools into universities does not always sit well with an area such as the creative arts.

It is of course very necessary in fields such as medicine, law, mathematics or science that a university can confirm to prospective employers and to the public that the individual really is competent to take on the responsibility of being a doctor, lawyer, engineer or nuclear physicist. But artists are judged by their work not by their qualification. Validation is an ongoing process out in the world, involving every artwork they create or action they perform. For an artist, education is perhaps better understood as a process of personal growth rather than professional attainment. Towards the end of my time in Dundee the art school hosted a conference to discuss a number of challenging issues raised during the seminars. Of these, three key questions were: (1) what does it means to be a “professional artist”; (2) how might artists best engage with the wider communities in which they are located; and (3) in so engaging, how might they serve the community good? 

Sian Bonnell, Serving Suggestion No. 9, 2003–05, from the series Everyday Dada  © Sian Bonnell
Sian Bonnell, Serving Suggestion No. 9, 2003–05, from the series Everyday Dada. © Sian Bonnell

Sian Bonnell, an artist, curator and publisher, currently Reader at Manchester Metropolitan University, expressed a deep concern with what she called “the creeping professionalisation of the arts within higher education.” This, she noted, had begun around the time that universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland began charging student tuition fees. Tertiary education continues to be provided free of tuition fees in Scotland (to residents and non-British EU citizens). In her view, “the professionalisation of art produces polite art. Art that behaves well and does not cause offence.” As an antidote, she proposed the concept of “wilful amateurism.”

For the wilful amateur, a concern with earning money from making art would constitute a dilution of it. She spoke from personal experience, having for many years earned her living on short‑term contracts and part‑time casual labour while making art that employed strategies characterised by adaptability and lateral thinking. And, anyway, “why professionalise art practice,” she asked, “when the prospects for employment within this market diminish year on year?” Here, notions of the professional are directly linked to the earning power of Contemporary Art objects within a neoliberal system of luxury commodity markets.

But, as Sian Bonnell suggests, this is not to say that art as a whole is going down the same path. The field of art is wider, extending to those creative practices which cleave to the value of the community rather than the price of the market and the pronouncements of institutional gatekeepers. The 1% may have eclipsed the 99% in the field of Contemporary Art, but in other areas there is movement that presages change. This movement is at once on the margins of art and yet also at the heart of public life as a social experience.

The artist and DJCAD academic Gair Dunlop, speaking at the same conference, addressed the challenges of engaging the wider community from within the art school. He began his presentation with a photograph of a set of posters that had “mysteriously” appeared overnight near the railway station and disappeared just as quickly. Drawing on the form and language of newspaper adverts—a reference to Dundee’s historic involvement in journalistic publishing—the posters posed a series of questions about life in the city. They were, as Gair Dunlop put it, “anonymous, fast, clean and cheap … Putting the idea of place into a place, and then seeing what the effects of it can be.” 

Anonymous posters, Dundee, 2018. Photo © Gair Dunlop
Anonymous posters, Dundee, 2018. Photo © Gair Dunlop

It is an approach that has increasing currency. Speaking at a conference presented by Queens Museum, New York, in 2014, the artist James McAnally spoke of his quest for something he sensed but could not yet quite define. His search was for “an art whose residue remains with a social and political life beyond the act” and in order to achieve this “it is perhaps our careers that must be eclipsed” … “I am for an artist who vanishes into an action, a value that comes to live within and among people.”

Gair Dunlop’s concern was that when an art school, whether via its students or its staff, engages with a community, for example during an artist’s residency or a participatory performance, too often the focus is on an individualistic response to this temporary context; a problem frequently exacerbated by the project’s short duration. How, he asked, could students and staff develop an embedded relationship with communities in the processing of developing their skills and awareness as artists?

One possible way is being explored through RMIT where, in 2018, the art school established the Photo Futures Lab, an experimental off‑site project in Collingwood. Part of Melbourne Polytechnic, the building in which the Lab is situated is now home to a range of community and advocacy groups. This provides a context for learning removed from the institutional security of the main campus while more intimately embedded within the local community. The Lab opened up the opportunity for undergraduate students to work with a range of community partners.

One group partnered with the Social Studio, a multifaceted fashion initiative designing, manufacturing and retailing clothing that showcases the style and skills of young people from new migrant and refugee communities. Another group began what is now a continuing collaboration with year 8 and 9 students from Collingwood College. A third group collaborated with the Big Umbrella Foundation and ABC Fact Check on a project challenging the misleadingly limited representations of homelessness in public discourse. Among other partnerships, groups created a social history of The Bendigo Hotel, one of the oldest pubs in Collingwood and, more recently, a book on the Tote, an important site of resistance in the Melbourne music scene.

Image from the book, The Tote, 2019 © Claire Armstrong, James Jenkinson, Panayiotis Kasseris, Sophie Chambers, Tom Graham
Image from the book, The Tote, 2019 © Claire Armstrong, James Jenkinson, Panayiotis Kasseris, Sophie Chambers, Tom Graham
Image from the book, The Tote, 2019 © Claire Armstrong, James Jenkinson, Panayiotis Kasseris, Sophie Chambers, Tom Graham
Image from the book, The Tote, 2019 © Claire Armstrong, James Jenkinson, Panayiotis Kasseris, Sophie Chambers, Tom Graham

The Lab is run by Kelly Hussey-Smith, who describes it thus: “The learning and teaching focus of the Lab employs the model of ‘students as partners’ through an egalitarian learning environment that encourages critical dialogue around the politics of representation, relational ethics, and collaboration. The Lab brings together RMIT undergraduate students, staff, alumni, community partners, and members of the local community to explore photography as a social practice, through a range of collaborative projects with local organisations engaged in community-led social change.”

While projects developed within an art school environment can become inward-looking, emphasising the expression of the student’s subjective feelings and ideas, the Lab focused on outward-looking collaboration, encouraging active listening, a respect for the diversity of experience and a recognition of the value of these shared connections. The Lab also challenged students and staff to be resourceful. Removed from the support services provided on campus, it demanded a considerable degree of self-motivation and problem solving by all involved. Far from draining the students’ energy, this empowered them. As the period of the module was drawing to a close, a time when, in more conventional courses, students are expressing weariness and focusing down on completing their project, participants in the Lab were developing and extending their projects in highly inventive ways.

This confidence, motivation and entrepreneurialism once acquired, proved sustainable. Educators running other courses within the art school have noted the consistently higher levels of self‑confidence, dynamic engagement and peer support demonstrated by students who have previously worked in the Lab. It suggests that this collaborative, less self-focused way of working with the community outside the confines of academia taps into a more deeply felt and motivational sense of purpose than does the individualism of the auteur. As one student put it at the end of the course: “rather than thinking of myself as a photographer, I was thinking of photography as a tool of my civic self.”

Students working in the Photo Futures Lab 2019. Photo: RMIT
Students working in the Photo Futures Lab 2019. Photo: RMIT

This approach to art education understands both learning and art making as forms of partnership, involving all participants. Art made with and within the community places the citizen at the creative centre, giving him or her a voice. Bill Ivey, a former head of the US National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), has proposed a useful way of thinking about culture in terms of the “expressive life” of the citizen and the community. He puts it this way: “Our expressive life is made up of two equally important components: the history, community connections and shared knowledge that give us a sense of belonging, permanence and place—our cultural heritage—and the counterbalancing area of accomplishment, autonomy and influence: our individual voice.”

This is more than simply expression for its own sake. To be actively engaged in one’s culture is to hone skills of understanding and adaptability by having the confidence to take hold of and shape one’s sense of self and one’s sense of locatedness in the life and history of the community. As such, it has the capacity to help citizens to become more resilient in the face of change and more assertive in their active participation in collectively defining the outcomes of that change. As an example of this kind of empowering artistic collaboration, I will conclude with a project that had a profound impact on me.

In 2016, I was one of two international observers invited to bear witness to a remarkable art project presented at the Museo de Antioquia in the city of Medellín, Colombia. For the previous fifty years, Colombia had been the theatre of a multilateral armed conflict with Medellín at its epicentre. All the main actors in this conflict—left-wing guerrillas, landowning oligarchs’ militia, drug cartels and government forces—have been accused of gross human rights violations. Over 200,000 people died in the Colombian armed conflict, four in five were civilians, of which one quarter were children. Millions of villagers had been forced from their homes, creating the largest number of internally displaced people in any country in the Western hemisphere.

Erika Diettes, Relicario #21, mixed media (donated objects set in rubber tripolymer) © Erika Diettes
Erika Diettes, Relicario #21, mixed media (donated objects set in rubber tripolymer) © Erika Diettes

The artwork, Relicarios, was created in a partnership between the artist Erika Diettes and the families of those who had been displaced, abducted, tortured, raped and murdered during the armed conflict. Erika Diettes established a studio in the hills of Antioquia, some 600 kilometres from her home in Bogotá. Here, over a period of four years, she worked with grief counsellors in the region to reach out to the local people and seek their collaboration: would they be willing to donate articles that had belonged to a love‑one lost in the conflict so that those objects could become a part of a collective artwork created in their memory?

“It led mourners to undertake journeys of up to thirteen hours on foot and five hours by bus just to come to my studio,” Erika Diettes explained. “For them, this was not simply a physical journey. They came to publicly honour the memory of their loved ones. To do so, they must hand over personal possessions, objects that once belonged to the Disappeared, treasured reminders they had preserved for periods of up to twenty years.” Each set of personal belongings was encased in a block of translucent rubber tripolymer reminiscent of amber. For Erika Diettes, who is trained both in art and anthropology, listening is a significant element in the process of art‑making. Each donated article came with its own narrative of love, life and the brutality of violent loss, and these stories helped shape the final arrangement within the block.

Before the exhibition opened to the public, the museum paid to fly in and accommodate more than two hundred bereaved family members. Many had never flown before and some had walked for days to connect to the transportation. There were two days of private workshops for the bereaved families, in which they shared stories of their lost loved-ones and prepared to visit the installation, again in private. What I found most striking about the workshops was that there was little casting of blame. There was sadness, anger, bewilderment, but the greatest concern was that, amid the shifting politics of the ceasefire, the ones who were kidnapped, tortured, murdered and disappeared should not be forgotten.

Erika Diettes, Relicarios installed at the Museo de Antioquia, Medellín, November 2016. Photo © Eliana Medina B.
Erika Diettes, Relicarios installed at the Museo de Antioquia, Medellín, November 2016. Photo © Eliana Medina B.

Relicarios has since travelled to other countries, bringing the trauma and loss of the poor rural families of Colombia onto the international political platform. But, while Relicarios has its public face in the museum, it also finds expression in the domestic. At a private event for the bereaved families to thank them for their courage and generosity in collaborating on the project, Erika Diettes gave each a framed photograph of their reliquary. These now hang in shrines and memorials created by bereaved families in their homes. They, in turn, send photographs of these domestic votives and stories of gratitude back to the artist via social media. Relicarios has been a way to bring the departed home to their family while, at the same time, connecting them with the unfinished history of their nation as it is related on the world stage.

The importance of Relicarios is both as a personal memorial and as a public acknowledgement of the trauma and loss that lay in the wake of decades of violence. Its depth and authenticity derive from the collaborative nature of the process and the sensitive involvement of the bereaved whose concerns remain the central focus of the project. While the artist shapes the final presentation in partnership with the museum, the content and narrative draw directly from the families who gifted their precious reminders of loved ones and shared their stories. This has been a significant project for those families, for the city and for the nation. Maria Del Rosario, the director of the Museo de Antioquia, explains it thus: “Here in Colombia we don’t have many opportunities like this one … we do not produce much art that uses beautiful objects to discover this kind of pain. I think that the way Erika involves the families creates a more complete way to understand how we must work through the art to understand our history.”

A woman regards the photograph of the reliquary that she received during the events at the Museo de Antioquia, which is now installed in her home in the hills of Antioquia. Photograph sent to the artist by one of the bereaved families
A woman regards the photograph of the reliquary that she received during the events at the Museo de Antioquia, which is now installed in her home in the hills of Antioquia. Photograph sent to the artist by one of the bereaved families

If art schools are to be places where students—and indeed staff—are to challenge preconceptions about art, life and society, it is essential that the educational process is embedded in the communities in which we live. In a society fragmenting into individualism, we need to learn the arts of connection, of listening, of respecting and of involving. In a polity driven by economic metrics, we need to learn that not everything of value will be paid for and not everything that is paid for is of value. In a world facing existential threat, where celebrity is the misdirection that keeps us inattentive, art must escape the narcissism of Contemporary Art and the artist embrace a new, outward-focused dynamic, that they may vanish into action.

Alasdair Foster is Professor of Culture in Community Wellbeing in the School of Public Health at the University of Queensland and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Art at RMIT University. In 2018, he was Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in the University of Dundee, Scotland.

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