Small Talk: Can We Talk About Practice?

A Small Talk discussion led by Barby Asante

Small Talk Tuesday 30 March 2004


There was a huge response to this Small Talk discussion and the subject seemed to have really touched a nerve. We want to thank Barby Asante for initiating this event and leading the discussions.

Small Talk is about informal dialogues and networks amongst artists and whilst the events are not minuted as such we thought it would be useful to post Barby Asante’s introduction to Can We Talk About Practice? and some notes from the discussions that followed.


Barby Asante Introduction:

My intention is to facilitate a conversation that explores some of the issues surrounding artists working in social context/ socially

engaged/ participatory arts practices.   What kind of work do artists want to make and what strategies do they want to explore to engage with audiences?

I am no expert in this area, I have never read anything about relational aesthetics though I have read stuff about public art practices and this probably has some influence on my practice.  I figured that my choice was to work in a way that I thought gently confronted audiences and invited them to engage on a deeper level.  I have always been interested in performativity, with my influences being Adrian Piper, Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena.  What interested me about their work is the ways in which they confronted audiences, in particular in relation to their identity.  An example Adrian Piper if you don’t know her is a very light skinned black woman, often mistaken for being Jewish.  She is often confronted by people who think she is lying about her identity.  When she entered a philosophy programme on a scholarship intended for African American students, the Principal called her into his office and told her she was basically taking the piss.  Later on in her career finding herself actually teaching on university philosophy programmes, she would find herself in situations where

people would talk about the ‘Race Problem’ in her presence, considering her to be one of them.  She used these misunderstandings or misrepresentations and created a calling card it said:


Dear Friend,

I am sure you did not realize when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past, I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative, or socially inappropriate. Therefore my policy is to assume that white people didn’t‚ make these remarks, even when they believe there are no black people present, and to distribute this card when they do.  I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.

Sincerely Yours
Adrian Margaret Smith


She used this strategy to fight a stereotype by giving the offender a concrete experience of what it is like to be the object of such racist remarks.

That work to me is on one level very intimate but also extremely confrontational and relies on a direct engagement with someone in Pipers’s case someone who says something that offends her.  Back to myself.  As you have probably guessed this kind of engagement interested me at a time when I was exploring my own position in the arts, my practice and also my position within an artwork.    I was interested in the gaze particularly as I didn’t see many images in galleries of people of colour.  I began making work that placed myself in the centre of the image and I got some very interesting comments about my work from my peers.  Assumptions about how I felt about such large and contentious issues such as slavery, my work was always considered to have some political position that related to the black experience, something I won’t totally deny, however I wouldn’t agree and say that I want to express some universal black experience, but my experience, which does come from who I am, which could express one or a multitude of my different identities.

It was my first experience of someone assuming my position, not unlike the example I gave you of Adrian Piper’s work.  So I shifted and started to explore absence and presence, performativity and engagement within my work and ideas. My desire to place the viewer in centre of the work instead of myself, therefore placing the responsibility for interpretation directly on them.  I wanted to create a strategy where assumptions are questioned not unlike Adrian Piper’s strategy with the calling card.

Another side to me is I have also spent a considerable amount of time becoming a very good artist educator, so I became embroiled in the social and cultural agendas of a variety of different organisations who were doing work to expand art and art practice into a variety of different communities and of course increase and diversify their audiences.  Of course this experience has influenced my personal practice and also sharpened my skill in engaging with people, and it also provides questions for me when I consider my own projects.

Last year I was involved in a series of Symposia exploring Socially Engaged practice what was also called Art in Social Context.  I had never considered my practice in any of these contexts and I wasn’t sure if I was there in a capacity as an artist who explores engagement in her practice or as an Artist educator.  I found that the boundaries were blurred and I had to consider what was important to me.   I didn’t feel happy with the terms, I didn’t feel happy with the position I found myself in and the various questions that came up were interesting and contentious.  In particular the question of responsibility.  It seemed that there was a certain amount of social responsibility assigned to this sort of practice that didn’t actually relate to what many of the artists wanted to explore.  This responsibility seemed to come from a position of a Social and cultural Agenda and not to say that myself or any of the artists I was in dialogue with didn’t have any position on this or political idea‚s or any social concerns, it was very confusing as the underlying feeling was that the symposia was not really about the practice but about informing cultural policy.

Since being involved with this symposia I have had a series of conversations with artists and arts professionals which in a sense provides the questions and framework of this small talk discussion. And because Lois and Daniel were two of the people I spoke to I was invited to lead this discussion within the small talk programme.  And before I open the floor to questions, comments and basically what I would like to see which is a dialogue I’d like to just go over a few things that came up in these conversations, which I feel will inform this dialogue.

This is going be a bit like an extended list that we can expand on in our discussion.


What drives artists to work in this way?

Art History and the historical framework of in particular visual art and visual communication?

Representation of this work within gallery programmes, where is this work positioned?  Education/ Outreach departments very rarely in the main programme of a gallery.  However we did consider the Whitechapel project Temporary Accommodation.

Working without product or something fixed in time and also the documentation of a project.

What the work is about?  I got comments about the work being about now, about common experience, connections, often connecting disparate communities, collaboration, value for unrecognised artforms, voices, how we live, and my favourites participation, collaboration and intervention. You may agree or disagree.

What does it mean for the individuals involved, those of you that have read the Variant article are probably aware of the difficulty in quantifying what it means for the individuals involved.  One of the most interesting of such projects was Thomas Hirschorns Battile Monument for Documenta 11 where it was the artists drive to create a monument in honour of Georges Battille, what this has to do with Turkish immigrants living on a grotty housing estate on the outskirts of Kassel no one knows so in a sense he had to co-opt these people into helping him to complete his project.  This did involve payment.  Also one of the people I spoke to told me about a documentary a friend of his made about this project, which interviewed many of

the participants who felt they didn’t get much from it, except some money.  The general feeling was why not spend the money on creating a permanent centre or somewhere where the community can meet.  Perhaps there is room for both.

Commitment, responsibility and irresponsibility.  I don’t know what else to say except it comes up a lot and relates to the last point.

Using the terms Socially Engaged or Social Context might be a newer way of saying community arts, which is no longer fashionable, but do the same agendas exist for example healing communities, social agendas, social work and lets add regeneration?

Context.  I personally feel context is significant to my practice and relating these works to live art practices that relys a lot on context.  Context and communication being implicit to live art practices.  Also many of the artists who make this kind of work although trained in a visual art context find themselves more akin to live art practices.

Intimacy, creating work that is not a huge screaming statement but rather an intimate conversational process.  It can be confrontational like the Adrian Piper example I cited but it is often much more subtle.

Generating responses, and using the response to feed the process. A kind of space for the unexpected.

Shifting spaces and considering spaces outside of conventional artistic space and also not necessarily positioning something as art.

The slippage between the creative process and the curatorial process.

A perhaps more political position choosing this kind practice to facilitate a structural creation of freedom or perhaps a way of exploring democracy.

Changing people’s perception of what artists do, what art means and the function of art.  Many artists today working in a variety of different medium are multifaceted and have to be and perhaps this practice is a in a way reflecting this.

Can policy makers co-opt this kind of work for their better good?  You can’t buy this work but it has something else, social significance in that the relationships created with the people involved in the work are a key part of the work.

Financial issues where do you place value.  Visual arts practices are product led.  These practices are skills led. For example, negotiation of space, possibly production management, financial skills, consultancy, communication skill as well as a variety of practical artistic skill, which could be making video‚s, painting, and many many other skills.  Could money be shifted away from product to skills or less product or outcome led form of practice.

I’ll leave it here for now I’m sure there’s much more.

Before we let rip on some of these issues let me remind you of the questions that I put forward for this discussion:

What drives contemporary artists and especially those working within Social Contexts‚ or with Socially Engaged Practices? What kind of work do artists want to make and what strategies do they want to explore to engage with audiences?

Set against these questions are concerns around the contexts, agendas and labels artists increasingly find themselves having to work within. What is expected of artists by those driving our cultural agendas? Who names and decides what Socially Engaged Practices actually are? How can artists determine their own agendas and take control of the contextualisation and representation of their practice, particularly in relation to questions of identity and ethnicity?


Selected questions and comments from the floor:

What kind of art could be actively termed as being not “socially engaged”?

If you make art as an individual or if you make it as part of a “community” it will still to some extent reflect the society you live in.

What is the community? Is it always groups of poor people, a “set of people united by a set of problems”? When people do not know their neighbours is it really a community?

As an artist are you making work “collectively”, or are you, the individual, leading it?

Art within social contexts is often seen as “Art to make things better” – the Missionary role where art gets co-opted as a cheap (compared to investment/redevelopment) mechanism to gloss over yawning deficiencies in health, education, housing etc. provision.

Within galleries the programming of Art is often separate from Art Education. The Art Educator can be side-lined and the artwork downplayed. Institutions need educating and questioning about their placement and expectations of the art education activity that they bring artists in to deliver.

There is a problem of engaging outside the art world: particularly coming out of the solipsistic approach of art education, so that artists separate themselves from society and it is then difficult to connect and collaborate with the wider population. And people have perceptions about what is and is not art, and it is banging up against this baggage that is the revelatory (transformative?) part of the process. Or you could choose to make your art invisible, as an “unattached” artist:  art is the approach you take, but is this immoral art?

Do you use the name “artist” (a recent and Western term)? If your focus is not about being a specialist, but questioning it, and constantly researching and learning, does the term “artist’ only come up in reference to funding? Or is it valuable for giving a point of reference, and is it useful to play with the available labels?

What drives artists to this practice is that their work does something, has power beyond their intentions, but there is a fear of ‘contamination” because the process inevitably touches into sociology, psychology, fieldwork and anthropology. But it can be argued that the trained practitioners in these fields are possibly as likely to cause contamination/damage.  The moments of conflict and difficulty are usually the points where all concerned learn. To be socially engaged and develop is not dichotomous. It is an exchange of skills, and to get active participation it is important to show what skills you will give. Most of us are aware of being inspired by artists when we were younger, and have had positive feedback from people we have worked with, so it is a process of transfer/transformation, but maybe the artist does not need to be told that they are transforming.

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An open space for artists to discuss issues that affect their practice

Small Talk

An open space for artists to discuss issues that affect their practice

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