Rethinking the Terms of Political Engagement in Arts Research and Practice

This text was edited by Prof. Desmond Bell  and is included in the book published Mind the Gap! Working papers on practice-based doctoral research in the creative arts and media in 2016.

 

Introduction

This paper outlines the research I conducted as part of my PhD (awarded by the National College of Art and Design, Dublin in November 2015). My thesis charts the evolution of a project concerned with mapping issues of political engagement in contemporary art practice. The aim of my research was to explore the production of political artwork in Ireland. The structure of the thesis and the methods of research employed directly relate to the challenge of pursuing the connections between the practice, theory and methodological aspects of this research. Accordingly, my research questions were informed on the one hand, by my engagement with some of the key critical debates in the field of art and politics, a field heavily indebted to Marxist and post-Marxist thinking and, on the other, through the development of my own art practice in Ireland, both as a working artist and as a curator of other artists’ work. From the outset I sought to delimit the scope of my research. I did so by focusing by focusing on the art-politics nexus in Ireland and by foregrounding an account of the evolution of my own work.

It may be useful to list here the initial research questions which shaped my enquiry:

  1. To what extent do we expect contemporary art practice to be socially and politically engaged?
  2. Do the traditional cultural spaces fashioned in the art world in fact facilitate engagement with the everyday political issues facing the audience outside the gallery?
  3. Can we identify the range of methods through which politically engaged art can facilitate for its various audiences a critical understanding of the conflicted world they experience today?
  4. What are the relationships between a) the artist’s activities and intentions as a producer of socially and politically engaged art, and b) the reception of such challenging artwork by individuals and communities.

These questions are, of course, very extensive in their reach. Indeed as my research progressed it became obvious that the focus of my research would have to be further narrowed to deal with the specifics of the Irish situation and to avail of the grounded and targeted approach that practice based research can facilitate.

Framing the Practice

In the text An Ethical Approach to Practitioner Research (2007), the term “practitioner inquiry” is used to describe the forms of practice-based research that have developed across a range of professional fields (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 2007, p. 24). Within this, the notion of practitioner-researcher is conceived as operating inside the physical or cultural community within which the researcher and their subjects work, and it is this embedded position rather than a pre-determined set of a priori knowledge imported from the outside, that forms the basis of “practitioner inquiry”. This approach, particularly as applied to practice based arts research, involves a synergy between processes of reflection on the situated practice itself and, on the other hand, the theories relevant to illuminating it, putting the practice in a wider context of critical concerns. This approach aspires to the elaboration of context-specific knowledge employed to guide the project, as well as the achievement of new knowledge outcomes being generated in and through the practice itself (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 2007, p. 27). In so far as creative practice can act as a source for generating new knowledge then practice based arts research can be viewed as an appropriate research approach within doctoral studies. The practitioner inquiry approach allows for “out-of-the-box” approaches to arts research to be accepted and invested with professional and academic authority, similar to that found in other fields of research (Biggs, 2006, p. 193).

Sullivan in his  seminal text Art Practice as Research: Inquiry in The Visual Arts (2005), sees contemporary art practice as falling into three categories: “Making in Systems”, “Making in Communities”, and “Making in Cultures” (Sullivan, 2005, p. 150). Work which primarily focuses on experiment and the autonomy of the art endeavor, venturing into new forms of creative practices, and which is primarily concerned with developing new skills and techniques Sullivan describes as a “Making in Systems” approach (Sullivan, 2005, p. 150). The area of “Making in Cultures” is described by Sullivan as the mobilization of critical and culturally informed art practices in an attempt at resetting the framing of the visual arts within contemporary culture (Sullivan, 2005, p. 150). For Sullivan, the strategy of “Making in Communities” (Sullivan, 2005, p. 173) seeks to contextualise a range of creative practices to address current and historical public issues and to do so by employing socially engaged approaches to one’s practice. This approach requires the artist-theorist to assess the outcome of their work through an understanding of the scope of its cultural meaning. It also requires the artist to consider the relationships between the social and political context of their work, on the one hand, and, on the other, the publics who receive and interpret their work producing the meanings that are indispensable to the understanding of the contemporary art work (Sullivan, 2005, p. 168).

I found it useful to chart the evolution of my research as a “practitioner inquiry” by invoking Sullivan’s three strategies. My early proposals can be considered as operating within the “Making in Systems” approach. This work sought to create a number of digital installations designed to act as “politically critical” devices. The initial proposal was to construct a walk through maze with walls made of mirrors and video panels relaying a range of political speeches triggered by the users (See Fig. 1). I quickly came to realize that the concept informing this proposal, basically one of ideological entrapment, was overly illustrative and reductive in its didactic simplification of the power of mass mediated political rhetoric to influence human behaviours. This rendered the proposal meaningless and I dropped it. I then set about designing a number of software applications which digitally dissected sample videos of political speeches and used the data generated to produce screen-based three dimensional designs (See Fig. 2). I wanted to create a series of screen-based models that could later be produced as interactive sculptures, employing the programming language’s ability to process live inputs to the project design.

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Fig 1 The Maze 3D Model ­ Hitler and Blair video placements. Image by Eedan Galim

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Fig 2 3D object dynamically generated, designed as part of “Stage2”. Moran Been­-noon

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Fig 3 Dynamically modified room model, designed as part of “Stage 2”. Moran Been-noon

This systems idea then found expression in a more specific interactive installation. This continued to use political speech content as raw material, but this source was now processed to create a dynamic design for an interactive room into which the viewer would be invited to enter. The users occupy a room with abstract moving images projected on the walls which represent tones and keywords from the selected speeches. (See Fig. 3 for the model of the room). These speeches as audio source activate a mechanism that slowly causes the walls to close in. The users must rescue themselves by their own efforts by using a crank handle as a counter measure to prevent the further shrinking of the room and to avoid being crushed. My somewhat didactic aim was to illustrate the crushing everyday experience of “dead-end politics” from which no escape exists. Again this was a thought experiment rather than the building of a prototype, and again this attempt to work informed by a systems approach seemed to have reinforced an overly didactic approach to this art exploration of political rhetoric. I decided to discontinue the development of this proposal and return to the drawing board but also to seek a more nuanced approach to engaging as an artist with political matters which led me to explore the idea of ‘Making in Cultures’, as advanced by O’Sullivan.

 

I then started to develop a further series of digital applications, the Act Series. My plan was to deconstruct the rhetorical practices employed within conventional political speech-making as raw audio material, with a view to interrogating the relationship between established politicians and their public. The first of these applications (Act I) used the Dada technique of cutup to ironically comment on forms of political speech. Audio elements of classic political speeches were fed into a specially designed cutup machine for audio files and then randomly assembled and then hand typed into new speeches “read” out by a digital text-to-speech voice relayed in a public performance. In the performance I introduced the speaker to the audience as Alex, a “brilliant politician” whose every word they should attend to. The audience christened him Alex McMac.

Alex’s speech suddenly seem to resonate with the current political moment and his expression of randomly assembled iconic phrases conjoined to create perverse meanings. (See Fig. 4).

Let freedom ring from every hill and are inferior school, we still after we sing and after we miss him by itself, the single moment of recognition that my story is even possible – I have a dream and should have never been waged, statesmen travelled across the ocean we refuse to believe the bad are to get that people to turn into very grateful for all the work. The great hopes of opportunities that were made from the magnificent world, friends we are together the real source of this concern the say letters misunderstanding full stop and exclude and never not going to help us. No one will do this for us, peace is in your hands and though my brothers planes. Some of the best schools is way where we comes, and this is all that we wanted ring in the there was a entertainer America is back and we can saying that we are going through the facts. In every aspect of American life for better pace of achievement legalise I am happy to join you segregated.

I found that this performative piece using computer generated text-to-speech voice, did facilitate the type of audience engagement I was hoping for – generating a conversation about politics and mass media, albeit a convivial rather than an ideologically driven one. I became interested in replicating this engagement in further pieces. This led to the production of the other Act Series pieces using interactive capacities to create art that offers the opportunity for its audience and participants to develop politically-critical thought about the content and mode of consumption of mass mediated political rhetoric in their everyday life. The outcome was a set of digital applications into which political content in the form of recorded or live streamed speeches performed by leading international politicians was loaded, and “instructional” introductory videos that present the concept of the applications and their original goals (see an example Max/MSP patch and a visual outcome of these applications in Fig. 5 and Fig. 6).

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Fig 4 Act I ­ Alex Is (A Politician). Moran Been­-noon

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Fig 5 Act II output. Moran Been­-noon

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Fig 6 Act III Max/MSP patch. Moran Been­-noon

I concluded that the experience this work offered its audience made for a less than meaningful engagement with the specifics of the Irish political situation and that in order to become a critically informed art practice it would need to facilitate a concrete context that would encourage its audience to develop a critical point of view on their own lives and political culture (Wekwerth & Blostein, 1992, p. 21) I began to focus more on my role as a curator seeking to diffuse the critical import of my own work and sought to create a curatorial situation that would allow a number of artists to engage with the practice tools I had developed in the Act Series with a view to facilitating production of a broad range of socially engaged artwork. A residency in the Market Studios in Dublin offered me the opportunity to program a gallery space and to research and develop a exhibition of my choice and I was able to develop my research within this supportive structure.

The switch to a “Making in Cultures” approach stemmed from my realization that by attempting to produce technology-heavy work I risked distancing my work from my core artistic concern with engaging an audience. I opted then to focus on the conceptual and curatorial aspects of my work as an artist. The outcome of this curatorial project was a 2012 exhibition, initially titled “Re Act”, later developed as “Stories to Wake Up With. This involved the exhibition of the work of seven artists, some of them Irish based and others international. Each proposed a piece that responded to one or more of my Act Series pieces. My work as a curator was very much a collaborative one. Each piece was developed by the artist on the basis of a commissioning overview and call for submissions that I produced while each artist subsequently engaged in dialogue with me about the proposed design of the piece and the expected outcome. My idea was that the pieces would be the result of negotiation between my practice aims and each artists working methods. My role was primarily as a director and facilitator, but I occasionally acted as a collaborator, particularly to address logistical hurdles that arose in the production of the work and in its exhibition.

 

This exhibition took place at The Market Studios in Dublin and was designed as an integrated installation piece combining the work of my selected artists. The plan was that the visitors to the exhibition would be immersed in the content and atmosphere of the work from the moment they entered the building. Video elements of one of the pieces by Miya Ando, The Return of Gratitude of the Crane [Tsuru no Ongaeshi], which is an artistic reinterpretation of a classical Japanese fairy tale with the theme of deception, which I believed relevant to the politics of relationships (Ando, 2012) was projected in the staircase leading up to the gallery (see Fig. 8) with a bass drum audio that lingered in the background of every space. In other nooks and crannies other work was located. Monica Flynn’s piece The Hearth included a space designed to function as an interactive audio installation within which we hear various readings of statements from the Irish constitution related to the position of women in Irish society and the notion of “home”. Another audio track challenged this ‘official discourse’ – relayed multiple voices, including a variety of accents and women’s voice within contemporary Ireland. The different works exhibited varied in message and format. These ranged from video pieces, to performances, to Efrat Gal’s project Goodnight Kiss in which the viewer is invited to sit opposite a giant teddy bear with a screen in its stomach on which is played a Skype conversation with the artist’s parents regarding the political situation in Israel, to a pencil drawing produced by Steven Maybury (Doublespeak:act1) commenting on the online consumption of Barack Obama’s speeches (see Fig. 7). It was important to me that visitors to the gallery would feel that there was a curatorial and critical thread linking the pieces focusing on political rhetoric and its reception.

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Fig 7 Steven Maybury’s Doublespeak: act 1. Photo by Hazel Fitzpatrick. 2012

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Fig 8 Efrat Gal’s Bedtime Stories, installation view. Photo by Hazel Fitzpatrick, 2012

My aim was to separate the Act Series methodology from its original practice setting, and to facilitate a range of art works produced by others who might use this tool to explore the complexities of political communication. My curatorial role naturally took me into the field of exhibition design and forced me to think about issues of reception and how an audience might respond to the work presented and to address the design of a space and an atmosphere. The production acted as a kind of laboratory, enabling me to examine the exhibition and reception of a range of political artworks involving different types of engagements. In that, this project was a success. It was the social composition of the audience that posed the problem. This exhibition existed solely within the limit of the art world, its audience composed of individuals who were interested in contemporary art, whether the subject matter of the pieces was relevant to them or not.

The process of developing a curatorial project seemed to naturally lead to the final phase of my research practice which now sought to emphasise the role of the intended audience in relation to the process of artistic production. As I reviewed the outcomes of the three forms of my practice to date : my digital artwork and proposals, the conceptual development on my research influenced by O’Sullivan’s schema, and my involvement in curatorial and exhibition practice, it became apparent that the next step in my research journey had to involve a progression to Sullivan’s last domain, “Making in Communities”. This would involve the adoption of an art strategy that turns the focus of the politically engaged art intervention onto the social context in which artwork is created, disseminated and responded to by specific, socially located publics.

So, I once again revisited my initial research questions. I felt that my research would benefit from addressing the question “Do cultural spaces fashioned in the art world facilitate an engagement with the everyday political issues facing the audience outside the gallery or museum?” My assessment of the “Re Act” project suggested that I needed to become open to the possibility of creating places and communities of art engagement, instead of confining art to existing gallery and specialist art locations. It was during this re-framing of my research focus that I decided to include “place” as a key concern in work. I deemed that an effective communication of socially relevant, artistically expressed messages requires the creation of art situations that are site sensitive and tailored to the concerns of specific audience in their preferred sites.

This more active engagement with the audience acted as a further contextualisation of my practice. The focus increasingly fell on the significance of location, political context, and community setting for the reception of the work of art. The new emphasis in my work became time-specific and place-specific. The critical discussion in my thesis of the significance of location deals with both the social context of contemporary art production (and the debate around relational aesthetics), as well as the problem of the habitual detachment of traditional art practice from the everyday life of the community it proposes to use as subject matter. In the final segment of the thesis I explored a range of terms that appear relevant to the consideration of the issue of location within art productions, leading me to delineate the idea of a “found place”. I assign particular significance to the notion of “convivial practice”, as conceived by Ivan Illich in his book Tools for Conviviality (1973). Illich’s term foregrounds a definition of place as a location that is identified by the social relationships which constitute it. Found places house site-specific art systems that have a reciprocal relationship with the community that acts both as their audience, and as part of the subject matter of the work.

So the conclusion to my dissertation seeks to clarify the role of location in politically engaged art practice identifying the formative role of specific audiences in the design and conceptualisation of socially engaged artistic production via forms of collaborative practice.

Conclusions

Each phase of my research involved an examination of the different artistic and political potential inherent in each art intervention I undertook. In order for me to adequately assess these interventions it has been necessary for me to reflexively explore my role both as a cultural practitioner and academic researcher. As the research evolved, my work revolved around the reflexive re-organisation of the process and outcomes of its practice elements. Increasingly, my aim was to consider the possibilities for developing my practice further through this process of iterative learning rather than merely drawing a set of textually based conclusions expressed in the abstract language of critical theory.

I was able to identify three challenges which I think confront politically engaged art practice in Ireland today. The first is to relocate art from the white walled gallery or other dedicated art spaces to alternative locations deemed relevant to the particular piece, a relevance that would first and foremost be determined by the audience “available” at the location. The second challenge involves the form of engagement enacted in the pieces. While the medium and type of relationship offered to the audience is ultimately determined by the artist, the evolution the work should include a form of interactivity in the design of the pieces and the manner of their reception. The third challenge is to retain the artists’ own political and creative interest and autonomy, and not to relinquish this aspect of the art system in favor of the relational priorities often pursued by collaborative practice which seem to undermine the agency of the artist. Ultimately, the framework that I propose for politically engaged art practice in contemporary Ireland would consist of: site-specific political artwork; the facilitation of active forms of audience engagement; and the adoption of a critical viewpoint on the issue of representation and political responsibility. To produce political artwork within a found place involves more than the physical relocation of creative practice from the gallery. We need a communication model that includes within it the site specific place of art and indeed the role of the local community, and audience as a core part of the production of artistic meaning.

 

 

Bibliography

Ando, M. (2012) Email to M. Been-noon, 07 October

Biggs, I. (2006) ‘Hybrid texts and academic authority: the wager in creative practice research’, in: Macleod K., Holdridge, L. (Eds.) Thinking Through Art: Reflection on Art As Research. London: Routledge, pp. 190-200

Cochran-Smith and Lytle (2007) An Ethical Approach to Practitioner Research London and New York: Routledge

Sullivan, G. (2005) Art Practice As Research: Inquiry in The Visual Arts. London: Sage

Wekwerth, M. And Blostein D. (1992) ‘Questions concerning Brecht’, in: Kleber, P., Visser, C. (Eds.) Re-interpreting Brecht: His Influence on Contemporary Drama and Film. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 19-37

 

 

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