Community Engaged Practice in Liverpool: From Superflex to Assemble

 

Mike Stubbs and Mark Wright


FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) and
Liverpool School of Art and Design

 

Introduction

This essay concerns the development of a particular form of tactical community engaged arts practice, which had its roots in the Amsterdam of the 1990’s and spread to Liverpool in the UK. There it evolved unique, deep and authentic community engagement approaches through a series of commissions and projects centered around FACT, the foundation for art and creative technology, the UK’s leading center for new media art.

 

Our principle focus will be on the seminal project Superchannel, which morphed into the long running and ground breaking Tenantspin. Using archive material and interviews with some of the participants we will describe the projects with an emphasis on the experiences and insights of the people involves. We will then describe more recent projects and how the experiences and lessons of Tenantspin informed these new projects and contributed to a contemporary community engaged practice, which permeates the culture of FACT today and has greatly influenced work in this field both in the UK and internationally.

 

 

Tactical Media and Amsterdam

The cultural context out of which this work began is the emergence of Tactical Media in 1990’s Amsterdam. A confluence of social, political and cultural factors gave rise to an arts practice, which explored the use of new media as tool for critical, social and political activism. Geert Lovink describes Tactical Media as a "deliberately slippery term, a tool for creating 'temporary consensus zones' based on unexpected alliances. A temporary alliance of hackers, artists, critics, journalists and activists"[1].

Mike Stubbs, now Director of FACT, was an artist and curator working closely with artists in Amsterdam and elsewhere at that time. He describes his recollection of that period:

“ Personally, I do not think in terms of historical linear narratives. Going back to the origins of new media I was attracted to the fact that you could have different relationship to object in a space and stronger sense of interaction. I was attracted to work that was gestural, interventionist and situational. The early 90s new media I liked were in this field. Examples include Heath Bunting (whom I worked with), Critical Art Ensemble, RTMark and the Yes Men and John Perry Barlow. Geographically, Amsterdam in particular, became known as a center for open knowledge and open source thinking. The writer and media theorist Eric Kluitenberg was a catalyst there as was David Garcia, co- founder of Time Based Arts. They both went on to be involved in influential Next 5 Minutes festival series on Tactical Media.”

Stubbs goes on to describe the zeitgeist and tensions in different perspectives, which laid the foundations for what was to follow:

“The starting point is how attractive this was in the first place. There was a certain utopianism around possibilities of taking control or sharing control. It was suggestive of major political change but also conflicting perspectives. There were still echoes of the 1960’s post war utopianism and the feeling of abundance, freedom, everything seemed possible, it sort of spins out of that. It was also deeply associated with the advent of digital technology, which was genuinely enabling but also, at the same time, associated with what we might now call techno-romanticism [2]. In opposition to this there was the start of the ‘punk aesthetic’ with its roots in the 1970’s and the economic and social suffering of the 1980’s. It seemed that there was now an appetite and an opportunity to stir it all up”

In hindsight, Stubbs recognizes the moment of a personal insight that a significant cultural shift was underway while attending the second ‘Doors of Perception’ conference in Amsterdam in 1994, a series founded by John Thackara:

“It is remarkable to think who was there including John Perry Barlow, Amy Bruckman, Fiona Raby and Tony Dunne, Philip Tabor, Peter Lamborn Wilson and David Chaum.” In his summary of the conference Stubbs wrote, “ I am pleased to report a move away from technocracy towards social, environmental and political concerns and ‘virtual futures’ which see the rise of new users and power makers and where existing social structures are questioned.”

Stubbs notes the characteristics of the emerging arts practices:


“ There seemed to be a pivot away from art as object and towards the

notion of an art work as a process, infrastructure or conduit. This might take the form of a publication system, tv station or cable tv or community of squatters. The artist or, increasingly commonly, artist collectives would move from being authors to actors that took a position. This was not about just about individuals and pieces any more but groups and platforms.

The notion of the prankster was central in some way combined with activism and a spirit of direct action coming from a Dadaist, Situationist prankster pedigree. For example, the Electronic Disturbance Theatre, co-founded by Richardo Domingeuz, enacted online sit-ins and other acts of ‘electronic civil disobedience in solidarity with the Zapatista movement. Ad Busters were anti-consumerist group of activist and artists using ideas such spoof ads or ‘subvertisements’. At the same time there were feminist groups such as the Guerrila Girls, VNS Matrix and Old Boys Network that explored the gender politics of cyberspace and digital technology.

It is also important to realize this scene spread beyond the art world. John Perry Barlow founded the Electronic Freedom Foundation, campaign for internet freedom and publishing a declaration of independence for cyberspace. Finally, in Holland, it is interesting to note much activism was centered around housing issues such as social housing and squatting. It is this issue of social housing, which is implicated in the commissioning of Superchannel. It is the issue of social housing which links the Port cities of Amsterdam and Liverpool and resonated so strongly with residents of both cities.””

 

 

Superflex and Superchannel

SUPERFLEX is an artists' group founded in 1993 by Jakob Fenger, Rasmus Nielsen and Bjørnstjerne Christiansen and based in Copenhagen. SUPERFLEX describe their projects as tools, a tool is a model or proposal that can actively be used and further utilized and modified by the user.

Superflex, along with programmer Sean Treadway, set up Superchannel. This was a form of intervention where they provided technologies and tools to support broadcast channels run by communities. Today, streaming is an everyday occurrence, but back then it was a new and technologically challenging medium. There were of the order of 30 such channels in many countries, but non had the longevity or impact of the Superchannel set up in Liverpool.

Liverpool Superchannel

Superflex were commissioned by FACT in partnership with the Housing Association Trust (HAT) to set up a Superchannel in Liverpool in 1999. The focus of the Superchannel were the residents of the oldest tower block in Liverpool, Coronation Court. The context was that the HAT was in the process of planning a project of urban renewal, demolishing the blocks and replacing them with low-rise developments. The idea of the Superchannel was to reach residents and give them a voice in this process.

A studio was set up in a room at Coronation Court and content was broadcast on the web. The early focus of the Superchannel was the urban renewal project. The residents would interview members of the HAT on camera. It was found that this created much more engagement with residents than previously. Although residents did have representation in some of the meetings of the HAT, this was not very visible or inclusive for the majority of people. The Superchannel meant many more residents could see the process and engage in it through a chat mechanism along with the video feed. It was also found that the live element and recording of the conversations was conducive to deeper interaction as participants. Members of HAT were aware that they were ‘on the record’ and the live aspect made interaction more dynamic.

Tenantspin

After the initial commission was over Superflex left the project. It was deemed to have been very successful. It was agreed that a follow on project should be created and called something else. So Tenantspin was born.

Alan Dunn was the lead artist on Tenant Spin with a background in environmental and socially engaged practice. A motivating starting point was that pensioners can make a significant contribution to culture and the role of the project was to make the conditions for this contribution possible.

 

Alan explains a guiding principle he applied to the project from the beginning was: “What happens if nostalgia is not allowed? In a project, which involves older people, nostalgia can be a trap, which constrains participants into passive reflection. If nostalgia is not allowed,

then the participants can focus on the present and the future. The participants become agents for critical questioning and creativity.“ One question that interested Dunn was, “We had reached a few engaged residents, some of whom were retired teachers or union representatives, but how were they to reach the rest of the residents behind so many closed doors?”

There were many arts projects and mechanisms for engagement with the residents. For example there was a BBC Science Fiction Radio project called Superblock with writer Jo Young. The work is set in 2040 and there is a Super Tower block, which is 1470 floors high, similar in number to the floors of the 67 real blocks in Liverpool and built from salvaged materials from their demolition. People in this future time, look back to the present and the mistakes that were made. The work was created by consultation with many elderly residents in the blocks.


In an interview with the BBC, tower block tenant Jim Jones said, "There’s a tremendous degree of disempowerment which pervades society today. I think Superblock draws into focus the extent of that which would occur if it were left unchecked. I think the reality of Superblock is within issues being decided on behalf of people without their involvement, and without proper feedback on the effectiveness of those decisions taken. The fantasy attached to Superblock is not that much removed from reality."

One of the main activities became a weekly magazine show created at the FACT building by residents and broadcast onto the web with chat feedback. The subject of this programme was very eclectic from the serious to the frivolous. It was through this weekly broadcast that the residents really got to establish their voice. Jennifer Welch, Tenant spinner and project worker, describes the emergency of this voice,”I loved that in the audience it felt quite personal it was a very intimate space, but at the same time was being broadcast on the web.

I saw an audience member stand up and start speaking and I realized the audience was in control of the agenda. I thought, Wow this is brilliant, this is what I want to do! People didn’t always ask polite questions but they asked the questions as an audience member you would want to ask.” The group interviewed Sir David Putnam and Will Self. The tenants also went to Copenhagen and New York.

Legacy

It is clear that Tenant Spin had a profound affect on FACT and its practices. The experiences, skills and networks developed during Tenant Spin set the mold for a new form of community engagement characterized by long term interaction with the same core of participants. In the following we explore the nature of these projects.

VETs In Practice

Vets in Practice is a project focusing on military veterans of all ages, some suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental illness, addiction and social problems. The project was set up in co- ordination with the Liverpool Veterans Project. Initial funding came from a Primary Care Trust(PCT), part of the UK National Health Service accessing funds from a City Community Covenant, which is money provided by the UK Government to support veterans adapt to their civilian communities.

A key partner was Bob Blanchard at the Breckfield and North Everton Neighborhood Council (BNENC), home to the Liverpool Veterans project. FACT had already worked with Bob with older people, part of the network built up through Tenant Spin. The initial project was to start to understand veterans and the local landscape in which they live. The problem was FACT had no group for an artist to be resident in and there was no group bringing VETS together, crucially Bob knew VETS through the BNENC.

The first artist in residence was Stuart Griffiths, an award-winning photographer, and an ex-paratrooper. Griffith’s previous work included the film Isolation, which documented his own experiences and those of other veterans of sleeping on the streets after leaving the forces.


Emily Gee, now acting head of engagement at FACT, explains how crucial was the choice of Stuart for the first project, “It was very important that this first artist was also a veteran. Stuart understood the culture and experience of being a vet. He was able to understand language differences and ‘colloquialisms’. Most important of all, Stuart had the credibility to build trust in the idea of vets engaging in arts practice at all,

that he had been in a very bad place and that art had helped.”

The FACT engagement team learnt very quickly from this first project. Emily Gee sums up the key lessons,” It was very clear in the beginning that there was a total separation between us and them, military and non-military, and feeling that lack of experience and different perspective on the world. It takes a long time to develop trust. At first there was suspicion of the value of art and what we were asking people to do. There was a clash of working culture, we are involved in a creative artistic process, which involves collaboration and the development of a dialogue, whereas the vets were looking for a brief to get on with and little dialogue happened at first. The local issues of transition were dominant and the strong identity of the vets as a group. Slowly, there was a shift towards wanting to do art and enjoy it, to be engaged in creative thinking despite thinking they weren’t, non of the group and done anything ‘creative’ before”.

It was then that, like Tenant Spin, there was the realization that a longer term project was appropriate. Gee explains, ”You can’t just rock up and leave. There is a risk for them to be involved at all and you have to respect that risk and be there and for the programme to be shaped by that risk.” Gee continues, “We didn’t begin to understand even over that period of months. We need to talk for a long time and explore the politics, history and processes involved, people are complex. Art practice is a journey and it takes time, constantly learning, shaping and shifting things. It is fundamentally important that we take time and give that commitment. That is why it was so important that Stuart, the first artist, was a vet, he had been on that journey.”

Jay, a vet on the programme, who eventually joined the FACT team on another project agrees, “ Opening up when vulnerable takes trust and time. The military is a forced and efficient environment, its important that people like Emily don’t push otherwise it is like the army. It’s also important to see these other people valuing art and then you start valuing it. You have to be shown it to believe it properly and experience it.”

Gee emphasizes the importance of longevity and continuity, “After the initial project we had to keep the group going even though the funding was stretched. It was important that something happened every week that was social and creative. You can’t just pause and come back when the funding is in place else things will fall apart, you have to make it as

smooth and continuous as possible.”


FACT then obtained major funding from the Paul Hamlyn foundation and from the Primary Care Trust Covenant. This gave at least 3 years for base funding and projects on top. The first new work was around Animation with a quick four-month project with local artist Anne Watkins.
The new project was about the lives of veterans now rather than the transition from service to civilian life. One social and political element was to raise the issue of services available to support vets.

Prisons Project

This is FACT’s latest community engagement project following on from, and in parallel with, the Vets in Practice (VIP) project. It follows a thematic line of enquiry around citizenship and identity and what that means. As with the Vets, this is starting as a short-term exploratory project.

 

Participants are limited to just within Vet prisoners at HMP Altcourse and family members of VETS within HMP Liverpool. The prison environment throws up a whole different context of concerns, systems and hierarchies within in which to understand vets. There is a dual identity of a vet and a prisoner and those are two very different things. Jay, a vet working for FACT on the project explains, “To be a vet and to be in prison are two polar opposites. The general perception of themselves and of the public towards vets is heroic and respectable, whereas the perception of themselves as prisoners is the opposite of that. Like coming out of the military, from being proud of what you are to not being proud.”There are clearly a complex set of tensions between the two identities.

The actual project centered around the use of the computer game Grand Theft Auto (GTA) as a digital narrative medium for prisoners to tell their own stories. The artist involved were Larry Achiampong and David Blandy. The usual content of the game was stripped away to leave a space for story telling. It is interesting that, although the use of the medium was left open, all participants chose to tell their own story and this content will result in a series of films.

Emily Gee, project leader, explains what the project has revealed so far, “It is practically possible to take GTA and Playstations into prison and to engage prisoners with a digital story telling platform. The prisoners got it immediately and at only the second workshop the participants were totally running with it. They were producing stories that were very risky,

this is a hyper masculine environment with very real dangers. That relates to really really wanting to articulate that stuff and this is an opportunity to do that. They were really quick to understand artistic language, visualize ideas and communicate their stories abstractly or more narratively. They participants displayed a range of talents, good writers, musicians and brought it together for pieces and a wide range of material. The families also depicted a range of experiences from different points of view.”

FACTLab: Personal Agency the Maker Movement and Embodiment

FACTLab is an experimental research, production and learning space embedded within FACT itself. FACTLab integrates and enriches the core functions of the Artistic Programme and Public Engagement at FACT through the use of co-design methodologies.

Dr Mark Wright, Director of FACTLab explains the rational underpinning the creation of the space, ”There is an exciting world-wide movement where art institutions move from just showing art to active creative participation with artists, publics and creative sectors. This development has been driven by a pan cultural realization of the value of co-design. In the creative industries (User Centered Design), academia (Action Research/ Research by Design) and Cultural Institutions (Socially Engaged Practice/Tactical Media). FACT and LJMU are recognised leaders in this field and FACTLab is our way of exploring this space. Although many other centres exist, we are unique in combining a permanent embedded senior researcher, world class artists, extensive community engagement and now, with FACTLab, in-house public-facing artist developers."

In the art sector in particular, there is a movement underway where art institutions are moving from being white cubes just showing art to act as hubs for effect, engagement, research and innovation with the public, artists, researchers and creative sectors [Bazalgette]. New paradigms of innovation overturn long held assumptions about creativity and authorship [Baldwin/Von Hippel], which echo debates of curatorship and audience engagement in the creative sector. New communities have arisen which adopt a social, collaborative and open platform for creativity and making, which may provide useful models to learn from.

Thiago Hersan, who moved from Brazil to Liverpool with his colleague Radamés Ajna to be one of the first creative technologists to occupy the FACTLab space, said: "I’m interested in fostering communities for exploring non-traditional uses of technologies. FACTLab creates opportunities for people to engage with, and sometimes influence, works while they're being developed, and is a great place to build a community around art and technology practices."

Radames Anja, now Learning Technologist at FACTLab adds,” I think the most valuable part of this new approach of collaboration between the public and the artist is to reveal the techniques and the process. FACTLab seeks to demystify and make contemporary art more accessible. Besides talking about technology, it helps to understand many aspects to our digital contemporary world, and perhaps understand why the word ‘digital’ is now so commonly used, rather than ‘analogic’ processes.”

Ghana Think Tank was one of the artist collectives that developed work at FACTLab. Artist Christopher Robbins explains the origins of the group, “ I was an artists who spent about a decade living overseas, often working on the fringes of International Development of Conflict Resolution. I witnessed the unintended consequences of good intentions, along with the patronising view much of the so-called "developed" world has ot the rest of the world. Ghana ThinkTank is an attempt to flip that power dynamic.”

Robbins continues, “Ghana Think tank has been ‘Developing the First World’ since 2006. We collect problems in the U.S. and Europe, and send them to think tanks we established in Cuba, Ghana, Iran, Mexico, El Salvador, and the U.S. prison system to analyze and solve. Then we work with the communities where the problems originated to implement those solutions. By exchanging problems and looking for help in unexpected places, we flip typical power dynamics, shift points of view and build unlikely coalitions.”

During their residency at FACTLab Ghana ThinkTank developed a new app and kiosk for people to engage in the ThinkTank process.
Robbins explains,” We are introducing new Ghana ThinkTank software embedded in the belly of a goat. It’s a kiosk, and a sculpture, and a way for visitors to participate in the Ghana ThinkTank process. We have a

history of building extravagantly strange kiosks. These are important structures that collect problems, share solutions, invite participation, and express a mixture of art, history, and vernacular architecture.”

Maker culture shares many of the social and political values of this new role of art institutions and the practices inherent in socially engaged practice and tactical media. Concepts of agency, community and sharing open source tools and digital literacy are paramount. It is important not just to look but also to do, belong and become.

During the ‘Build your own Show’ FACT commissioned the Liverpool based maker space DoES Liverpool to show a project called ‘Desktop Prosthetics’ which helps communities to 3D print prosthetic hands for children. During this period they ran a workshop called What’s your super power? A prosthetic hack. This workshop showed how the hands can be hacked and modified to explore the diversity of prosthetic design.

Adrian McEwen, co-founder of DoES explains, “ The Raptor hand used in Desktop Prosthetics is a general pick up and place prosthetic but with rapid prototyping tools like 3D printing we can develop modifications or ‘hacks’ for the reality of unique users.”

At FACT we discovered that an important theoretical insight is to recognize the important role of embodied, situated and embedded nature of tacit skill and social knowledge and the unpredictability of how interventions with digital mediation will unfold. New practices have evolved around this approach, which are inherently interdisciplinary. From this standpoint the role of technology is not fetishized for its own sake but seen as yet another medium for expression and remediation. In this framework the cultural significance of the digital is identified as bringing new forms of embodiment and interaction into the world. Thus new ways of doing and thinking lead to the evolution of practice, meaning and being. Such evolution is not possible either through technologically centred development focused on requirements capture or passive ethnographic study of existing practice. The new frontier of enquiry is inherently interdisciplinary, creative and practice focused in nature, centred on in-vivo interventions and the creation of new social- technical systems through cyclic processes of action and reflection drawn from arts practice and/or design.

In practice this involves co-design with real communities that learn, act and grow through together through interaction. We borrow from arts and design practices to enact intensive short cyclic sprints of creativity and reflection. Co-designers are drawn from an extended ecosystem of Artists, HEI’s, Schools, Industry, Government and Public Communities. The process explores the cultural significance of the digital through play. This aspect of FACTLab is now deeply embedded into the practices of FACT and helps integrate core elements of artistic programme and engagement.

Granby Four Streets, Assemble and the Turner Prize

The Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust in Liverpool are a cooperative of residents who self organized to save their houses from dereliction and demolition over a 20 year period. Their story is a remarkable example of determined social and political action by a community and the use of art as a tool for social transformation. In the last year this story took a new turn when the trust engaged the collective Assemble to transform their houses through architectural design and sharing of construction skills.

Coincidently, in June and August of 2015, FACT staged a show with the Crafts Council on maker culture called ‘Build Your Own: Tools for Sharing’. Assemble, along with artist Will Shannon, were invited to recreate their Granby Street workshop in the FACT gallery along with artifacts they made for the houses of the Granby Street residents. This was the first gallery show of the collective. (FACTLab was also launched at this show). During the run of ‘Build your own’ Assemble were nominated for the 2015 Turner Prize, which they won later that year.

Jo, a resident of the Granby Four Streets, describes how residents organized themselves as he walks around the area,” This is Cairn Street where it all started. Five empty houses were painted, the bricked up windows were painted with curtains and even cats looking out! They decided to start a market and put out tables and chairs and things to buy. The goal was not to make money but to bring people back and show you could live here. We started to get more people in and people started to want to come back. The media or others would see hundreds of people here. It was not derelict and unwanted as some had wanted to think.”

Jo continues by explaining the role of Assemble,” All the houses on this side of the street were designed by Assemble inside and outside and translated ideas people were thinking about, some brilliant ideas. These are Victorian artisan cottages for the artisans that built Liverpool. You can’t replace detail which has gone out so what do you do?

This is where the idea of making bespoke items in a workshop came from and passing the skills on to people to make their own. At first these items were made things for our homes initially. There is real substance behind this and this all belongs to the residents in a democratic sense. This is a place that the city didn’t want to exist and wanted to flatten like the rest of the street.”

Sometimes the residents had to resort to direct action to protect their streets. Jo relates such an incident,” This was the next street to be knocked down. A crane accidentally damaged a building and while we were on holiday they came with bulldozers to knock the building down and these five elderly women stopped them. They got out their chairs, tables, cups of tea and sandwiches. These women were in their seventies and they just sat their with their arms crossed.

‘What are you doing lad?’ one lady said to the workmen. ‘Come on ladies lets move, you’ve got to move or you’ll get hurt’ replied the workmen. ‘We’ll get hurt?! We’ll get hurt?!’ replied the one of the ladies.”

Jo fills in some important context,” What they didn’t know was that her husband was a boxing champion. If she can handle a boxer she can handle a crane driver, she is definitely not to be messed with!”


Jo goes on to explain how the incident escalated,” Then people gathered around and the police came and they said to the ladies you’ll have to move so the men can do their job, and the ladies said, ‘Well we’ve got to do our job too and we are not moving’ and the police could see they were not moving. Then the workmen asked the police what they were going to do and the police said, ‘You can do what you want we are going.’ They after half an hour the workmen said ‘time to go’ and they left. So the buildings didn’t get knocked down.”

Jo explains why this act of defiance was so important,” It was a way of them really stamping a foot down and saying to the council and others, ‘Get a move on because you are not doing what you think you are going to do. This is not going to get knocked down.’

To me that is the greatest art on the planet, doing it, practically doing it. As a result it gave a lot of the kids around here hope for the future when they can see that their elders have got up and, not had a fist fight, but have just been consistent and showed them how to do it. This is how you get things done, you have to be consistent.”

Jo concludes by explaining the role of art in this process,” The art is more than just a tool, it keeps people going, it helps people get up in the morning, its what makes a place worth living in.”

This story is interesting for a number of reasons. It shows principle agency coming from a community engaging with art and artists on their own terms working towards their own local agenda and goals. It is a story of social and political struggle where the residents took agency over their neighborhood and saved their homes.


Assemble and the winning of the Turner Prize was very unexpected. It put socially engaged arts practice center stage and has the arts community returning to questions we thought had been transcended such as what is art, what is it for and who is an artists?

 

 

Discussion

It is interesting to consider what patterns and conclusions can be drawn from the work carried out by these projects and their origins. Over the period a decade and a half these projects have built up a unique and sophisticated practice of engagement, which continues to evolve and form the basis of current and future work.

Long Term Engagement


A common fundamental trait of all these projects is that they are long term. These projects all span many years, in contrast to many other projects, which have a short duration of days or weeks. All participants note the need for long term engagement to build trust, develop relationships, confidence and skills within the community. This insight has consequences for how we think of community engaged arts practice and how it is funded. There must be a sense of commitment and continuity. It is possible that some activities are short term but they sit within a stable long-term framework.

Authorship and Power


These projects challenge traditional models of creative authorship and power relations. A classical model of creative practice is of a lone artist who is the source of knowledge, creativity and skill. Even artists who work with social groups may often treat them as ‘subjects’ or passive participants, which are the source of ‘material’ which the artist takes away and uses for their own creative goals. The power of the relationship is maintained with the artist and along with this goes a perception of a higher status of the artist as the bringer of creative value.


The model developed within these projects is of collaboration where participants are treated respectfully as equals. It is true that the artists, community workers and technicians possess professional skills and knowledge and experience of social engagement, but all of this is aimed to act as a catalyst to provide agency to the community. The process and outcomes are created and owned by all.


There is also no dichotomy between knowing and not knowing, between teacher and learner. There is a commitment by the artists and facilitators, not just to apply a transformative process to others, but to be open to transformation and change themselves. This self-change may take the form of insight, which will then necessitate a change in the process itself.

 

Social Embodiment: A situated and embodied model of social knowledge Underlying all these approaches are particular perspectives on what knowledge is, where it resides and how it can be created and acted upon. An analytic model would see knowledge as abstracted from the real world, codified and symbolic. Facts, rules and procedures are examples of this type of knowledge. An interpretive ‘continental’ model sees another form of knowledge, which is situated and embodied in the world. Social relationships, norms and skills are forms of negotiated or situated knowledge. This tacit physical and social knowledge can only be accessed through interaction with real communities in the field.

 

Furthermore, it cannot be know a priori what the effect of new forms of remediation through new media will have or how they should be applied because they are context dependent and subject to the tacit knowledge embedded in the community. This is why cross-disciplinary co-design and engagement practices are required to uncover the tactic, which are agile in creativity, engagement and technological terms. Meaning unfolds not through the application of a fixed process but through playful exploration.

 

 

Agency vs Therapy


Repeatedly, practitioners have rejected the position of socially engaged arts practice as a form of therapy or social work. The focus is always on art making and the social and political concerns of the community. The goal is to develop awareness and agency in the communities around these goals. Furthermore, personal mental health or social problems are never addressed directly by the artists. However, in long-term engagement projects such as these, where a great deal of interaction and trust is built up, it is inevitable that some participants will disclose serious mental health or social problems. The project team is not in a position to address these problems but it is important that there is a framework in place where referral to professional intervention is made possible in a sensitive and appropriate way.

We leave the last word to Jay from the veterans project:

“The outside perception (of community engaged arts practice) is wrong, every one should be expected to be creative. Its not therapy, and regarding it as such creates stigma. Through doing art it did helped me to dig into my issues, understand them and accept them. Life isn’t war and we need to experience the rest of it. If not you will be at war forever. You can only fight so often before you need to sit down. It’s better to sit down than fall down. I still don’t know what else to do. Its like you can’t even understand there is another way of seeing it. I have had other ways of being. Only a rough school and living on a rough estate. How can they explore and not be cynical?

That’s just an existence, I want a life and I’m pretty sure other people do too.”

[1] Meikle, Grahama (2004) "Networks of Influence: Internet Activism in Australia and Beyond" in Gerard Goggin (ed.) Virtual Nation: the Internet in Australia, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney pp 73-87

 

[2] Richard Coyne, Technoromanticism, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1999).