The Last Song Syndrome

A little bit of what happened

On Saturday, I attended a symposium as part of the Festival of Live Art titled ‘Art & Encounter 2014 – Beyond Audience Development: why do artists engage publics in participation?’

[A symposium brief was written in the lead up and it can be found here.]

The symposium opened with Amy Spiers presenting a paper that had really fascinating questions (which I am re-writing as I understood them, and am not quoting Amy, nor any other speaker hereafter) – regarding the Loveliness principle, why does most participatory art seem to fear offending its participants, and therefore all seem to be about nice, pleasant experiences? And in our current political climate, that such “nice, pleasant experiences” contribute towards the lie that things are fine and dandy, and that it does not reflect the reality of the discontent – which in turn does not call participants towards action outside of the performance.

We then had David Pledger and Anne Douglas present their individual papers. Anne Douglas shared, through the example of The Lagoon Cycle by The Harrison Studio, and Louis Althusser’s The Philosophy of the Encounter, to meditate on the difference between the Encounter and the Event.

David spoke about the politics within the industry – the hierarchy under which we artists fall into, bringing into example the recent Sydney Biennale boycott and George Brandis’ threat to the Arts industry regarding funding. (To be fair, the outrage towards George Brandis was clearly present from the start – James Oliver had mentioned it a couple of times in his introduction of the event, as well as in our pre-symposium chitchat. I mean after all, that threat was only a made a couple of days before and so it was pretty fresh in many of our minds.) But my key take home from his presentation was the proposition that we had to first value ourselves.

A short Q&A opened up followed by lunch.

After lunch, we heard from three artists: Dan Koop, who simply shared about his journey into the arts, which tracks a inevitable trajectory towards the practice of participatory art; Jess Oliveri, who briefly highlighted differences with the role(s) of participants in participatory work where authorship is concerned, and the question of their labour and their remuneration; and Lenine Bourke, who shared about her practice, while being entirely based on the Loveliness principle, has been faced with a lot of aggression from the authorities. She also then brought up a very interesting point of Friendship, as a core principle that drives her work.

Another short Q&A and a tea break, and then we broke up into groups.

It’s hardly a good summary of the day’s events at all, and I was certainly not transcribing the day very well, but this brief outline is mainly for context – and perhaps more of an indicator of what did stick with me at the end of it.

A little bit of what I thought

I must admit that every speaker had really exciting things to say – each of which could be topics for a whole other symposium all together! And so it was quite a lot to take in – before I could process each bit, the next person came on. And so when the Q&A came about each time, I felt like I hardly understood anything tangibly yet, much less have questions or statements and thoughts to make in response.

Both the Q&As seemed to focus around the Politics around art-making; funding bodies, institutions, monetary value, marketing speak… At the break out session at the end, the question of “who are these ‘publics?’” was put forth in my group.

By that point, instead of dissecting anything that was put forward today – all I had ringing in my head was, “why do we get together and talk about everything/one else but ourselves?” Time and again, with many other symposiums and forums, I have come away with that frustration.

A little bit of what I wonder

I think the Politics around art-making is an important discussion, and in fact a very pressing one to have – if to make the Biennale boycott count for anything, then artists and researchers must definitely keep that dialogue going. However, as I did all day that Saturday, as well as in the last two days, I kept re-reading the brief – and I struggle to understand a lot – what did we really discuss this Saturday?

I do think that symposiums should leave us with more questions than answers – and here are some that I am left with that I wonder(ed) about:

The Topic – Beyond Audience Development: why do artists engage publics in participation?It assumes that artists also make participatory work to develop audience. Do we? We probably do, but in quite a different way as described in the brief.

The brief also says “Art & Encounter is for artists and artist researchers”…however in itself, the topic starts from the point of view of organisations, festivals, institutions, and funding bodies – Audience Development as defined by these bodies. Of these other bodies though, we definitely participate in them, since we have been/want to be programmed in them, or have gotten funding from them, or have studied/are studying in them… we may/could even represent some of these bodies since we often wear multiple hats as exemplified by the speakers themselves.

So, what are we really asking then? Who do we really want to pose these questions to though? Are we the right audience in this particular symposium?

“…it is problematic that participatory arts are so easily championed for pragmatic ends, aligning socially with economic goals. Is there an unresolved tension where the critical practice implicit in participatory art might not sit so comfortably within a neoliberal consensus on development for the arts?”

Why are we asking artists this question? Why are we not asking the programming bodies of organisations? Also, I do not know what “neoliberal consensus on development for the arts” mean – but, most participatory art is hardly economically goal-oriented with small audience numbers and fraught with intense labour hours. (see The Stream / The Boat / The Shore / The Bridge: with 6 creatives, and 4 audiences per show, and a maximum of 6 shows a day if weather/daylight permits…hardly pragmatic, nor aligning with any economic goal there.)

The word Audience Development is also deeply problematic. Having spent a year in the role of Audience Development Manager at Metro Arts, of which was a new role, I am still trying to understand what that fully means. I can speak of what Metro Arts was aiming for with me in that role, but I don’t think that objective is/was necessarily across the board with other organisations, much less aligned with the “rhetoric of ‘new audiences’ easily equating to ‘bums on seats’ that address the ‘box-ticking’ and ‘bottom lines’ of managerialism…” as quoted in the brief.

Audience Development can be subscribed to that rhetoric. Audience Development can also be about a lateral growth – an insight into process, into a larger body of work. One way I saw it when working at Metro Arts, was to inculcate a spirit of philanthropy within audiences – as they learn more about how and why an artist works in that certain way, as they grow interested, they also gradually become invested.

Why do fans purchase album after album with musicians? (And I am not talking about pop stars – the local music scene here in Melbourne is indicative of that possibility.)

And as Lenine described in her presentation, she has got peers and friends, and audience members who have become friends and peers who keep track of what she does. Isn’t it because they see the value of her work? Audience Development is not a bad word.

There was a statement in the day that essentially meant – art is cultural capital for the public and therefore should by funded by public funds. Should it really? Should all art be? As an artist, I would definitely prefer if I could truly make a living being an artist. In the room, there was a sense of affirmation and chest-beating “Yes!” But maybe it is my Singaporean upbringing speaking here, heavily influenced by ideas of meritocracy and a government that has always resisted a culture of a welfare state, I couldn’t help wonder about that sense of entitlement. Are we assuming that we all make great art? Do we then also fund bad art?

I agree that we should start valuing ourselves. If we don’t do that, why would anyone else (institutions, infrastructure, etc) come on board with valuing us properly? So of course we should. Except, what does that mean? How do we want to value ourselves?And I wonder about this more than the monetary value side of things. I wonder if we knew at all, among ourselves, to value our work – what is a good piece of work? In the subjectivity of the artistic experience, how do we determine this value?

If and when we find that vocabulary to talk about that value, will institution and funding bodies even make sense then? Can the infrastructure of public funds really work for us then? And should we get the recognition of said value, and are funded for it, can we be truly accountable towards it? (We ask for accountability from the government and other industries, but can we really offer the same?)

But with regards to participatory work and socially engaged work, I am interested to continue to have a dialogue on, through research and with peers, the following:

Althusser’s The Philosophy of the Encounter.

When I witness/participate in work, I’d like to look at where the authorship lie?

Where does “nice” work leave us?

In valuing ourselves, we must also learn to say No to gigs. What are those parameters though?

Understanding someone’s body of work, as opposed to witnessing one work as its own.

Friendship – as artists, our social circles are often people who we do work with, and people we work with do become our friends. (Including the arts managers who we think take the biggest share of the pie.) In participatory work, audience members do often work with us to make/complete the work. How do manage the relationship?

And a little bit else

The brief ends with this paragraph: “Speakers will be asked to chart their art historical and theoretical allegiances, their motivations for working in a participatory manner and their concerns and desires for the future of these kinds of art practice. The aim is to produce lively and constructive debate, locating the points where practices that might look outwardly similarly actually diverge.”

The speakers did chart their allegiances in varying degrees – or at least through their presentations, it was clear what they worked towards. It was just a really interesting thing to witness – that the responses in the room latched onto funding matters, government bodies, institutions and institutionalising…

It is indeed a circumstance and context in which we work in, in which we should be critical about – however, it is only one of the many circumstances and contexts in which we work within.We don’t make work for funding bodies. We don’t make work for institutions. We make work, regardless. We know that they are not our advocates, and yet, we give them so much of our attention.

Also, we can feedback on policy. But we are not policy makers. And if we wanted to feedback on policy, we should be getting the right audience in the room.

We are art-makers though, right? Let’s talk about something we do know.

In any case, I thought I was invited to an event to unpack participatory art. And I said yes.

And in the vein of participatory work, isn’t it all in the invitation?

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