Touchy Feely

Amy Spiers is an artist from Melbourne with an interest in participation and social engagement in art. She and Pip Stafford have curated a series of events and an exhibition in Hobart, in late January 2012, called Touchy Feely.

The preamble to Touchy Feely includes a series of questions which the participants hope to address:

  • Should the “skill set” of art be instrumentalised to make a better world?
  • Is there a role for hope, compassion and optimism in art, without having to take an evangelical or moralistic position?
  • In our current situation, is it actually politically irresponsible to creatively express despair, unease and tension?
  • Is contemporary art marked by a facile cynicism, heartlessness and nihilism?
  • Or is relational and socially engaged art in Australia too sentimental, ethical and uncritical?

First of all, I want to say that it’s really great that artists are starting to draft up these kinds of questions about participatory, relational and socially-engaged art practices (or whatever else you want to call them). Hashing out the ethics and aesthetics of the work we do is an important step in “the maturing of the profession”, if you could call it that.

On the other hand, the first job of work to be done in answering these questions might be to rephrase them. For instance, “ethical” is strangely lumped in together with “sentimental” and “uncritical”; “cynicism” is likened to “nihilism”; and “hope” and “compassion” are cast as the opposites of “evangelism” and “moralism”. One of the tricky things for the participants in Touchy Feely might be to try and navigate their way through all this terminology without losing touch with the reality of actual projects. Perhaps a better way might be to dwell in the actuality of the work, and from there begin to reformulate these questions and assertions.

In an earlier essay, I tried to sketch a framework for collaborative art practice which involves artists being commissioned (by, for example, local councils) to engage with the public in problematic social situations. To some extent, this is “art at the service of the community”. You could argue (if you were feeling particularly cynical) that in this model, artists are employed as aesthetic social workers to create a set of positive public-relations stories.

The artists of the League of Resonance ran into some challenges, when it became evident that each action they planned to carry out needed to be discussed and approved in advance by the City of Melbourne Council (the commissioning body). How can an artist maintain aesthetic autonomy, and operate in an improvisational or intuitive manner, when paperwork of this sort slows things down – when everything needs to be rationalised and authorised? It’s not easy, and this is one of the aspects which needs to be carefully considered when deciding to tackle such a project.

While The League of Resonance occupies one end of the spectrum (funded, council-commissioned, and somewhat beaurocratically-bound), at the other end you might find a myriad of tiny self-devised and un(der)-funded projects which might be characterised as “small interactions between consenting individuals”. There were a range of such projects presented for the 2011 Tiny Stadiums Festival in Sydney. Dan Koop’s local message delivery service, and Amy Spiers’ Meeting Point are fairly typical of the sorts of art, post-Bourriaud, which has popped up all around the world. You could call it “micro-services art”, where art is used as a means of connecting up people within a very local geographical area, and within the run of the everyday.

This conversational-interaction work represents one of the branches shooting off from mid-20th Century avant-garde performance art. Nicolas Bourriaud describes the function of this sort of thing, in his book Relational Aesthetics, as “patiently re-stitch[ing] the social fabric”. “Through little services rendered, the artists fill in the cracks in the social bond,” he says. (See also this essay by the Radical Culture Research Collective, a careful consideration of the politics of Relational Aesthetics).

Bourriaud’s assertion that artists are trying to make a better here-and-now (micro-utopia), rather than overturn the social order (revolution) has proved an empowering idea for many of us, disdainful and weary of the overblown (often empty) radical gestures of “Political Art”. But this scaled-back ambition for the social function of art is possibly what prompts Spiers and Stafford to ask the questions which they hope will be answered by Touchy Feely. Divorced from the need to responsibly account for my actions as an artist in society, is my work reduced to a sentimental gesture, a stylistic shell of social interaction? Relationality as style?

My contention is that relational art is nothing more than a name-box for a particular sort of practice. Just as with other name-boxes for art, like “painting”, “sculpture”, “video art” etc, there will be good examples, there will be bad examples. Those who dismiss the whole relational box as a frivolous “arty party” for an in-crowd (following Hal Foster’s coinage) are just as wrong as those who hold up relationality as the long-awaited democratic antidote to capitalist, market driven object-art. In other words, you have to look at the particularity of each individual project to discover what sorts of social transformations it makes possible, how you can conceive of its aesthetics, and so on.

With relational art, this focus on the particular is easier said than done. This is partly due to its ephemerality (if you weren’t there, how can you make any judgement at all?) and to its inherently experiential nature (even if you were there, your experience will differ from mine). This means that most of the time, we have to take the artist’s word for it (invariably, artist’s statements are about how it was a success, great time was had by all, the photos look terrific, etc). But we have all been participants or audience members in such projects which, although well-meaning, fall short of their micro-topian manifestos.

One way to deal with this gap might be to amass many individual stories from the participants/audience (as well as by the artists) to create a kind of experiential archive document. By studying such a document, you could then begin to compare actual people’s experiences of a work to the claims made by artists and commissioning bodies.

There are various ways to gather these stories. My partner Lizzie Muller interviews folks about their experiences of art. But you don’t need to wait around til somebody sticks a microphone under your nose. Blogs are a pretty good way to generate your own experiential stories. For example, Amy Spiers’ critique of The League of Resonance project provides a participant’s insight – a point of view complementary (if not 100% complimentary) to the League’s own accounts of the project. And her earlier article documenting her experience of works by The Vorticist and Charlie Sofo (see page 25 of UN Magazine issue 4.2) was a valuable contribution too.

When I first encountered a re-do of Allan Kaprow’s Push and Pull, in New York in 2007, I was moved to document my experience of it in some detail. Two years later, this led to a full-blown, hyper-documented version in Sydney (in collaboration with Nick Keys and Astrid L’Orange).

I’ll be interested to hear what new questions emerge from Touchy Feely. My own query, at the moment, lies with the first of Spiers and Stafford’s points – on instrumentality. What methods of artmaking have been successful in enabling artists to connect with, and contribute to, movements of social transformation without being entirely consumed (or seduced) by the rhetoric of “social utility”?

2 thoughts on “Touchy Feely

  1. lauren

    oh lucas, i’m a bit bummed that i can’t go back in time and read this when you wrote it and have seen amy’s show.

    some of these questions came up about the work i did at the collingwood housing estate, although i didn’t necessarily write about them in such eloquent terms.

    having made that work, i firmly believe that it’s ok for artists to make work that is cynical, etc, etc. but not in a social engaged practice. people’s lives are not that cynical and, without being a polyanna, the most intense and amazing responses i received from people were along the lines of me having represented and reflected a truth about their lives without either glossing over the shit, or sticking them in the mire of it.

    to find beauty in the shitness is a term i have used a bit lately and i’m sticking with it.

    oh, and being a social worker is very different to being an artist. i feel quite clear about that distinction, but i still firmly believe that artists (as opposed to art) can make an intense and amazing difference in communities that have difficulties.

  2. Lucas Post author

    Well, i didn’t see the show either, so i’m looking forward to seeing the documentation on the TF site. In fact, the issue of “not having been there” is one of the perennial problems of “this type of practice” – how to frame what went on in retrospect, for the edification of those who weren’t physically present… lots of mythmaking can go on!

    your thoughts about these distinctions (between cynical/truth, between art and social work etc) are really interesting, i hope you expand on them with specific reference to your project – i think that kind of deep reflection is what helps move this discussion forward.



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