Artists as activators

by Katie Anderson

A few weeks ago, I took a detour on a trip from Edinburgh to Dunbar, to attend the first day of the Fertile Ground – Environmental Art for Change conference, led by North Light Arts and Chris Freemantle. It was an intense day, from ten until 7pm there were about 14 speakers, of artists, activists and locals intent of re-inventing Dunbar for an environmentally conscious future. There was a lot to take in, and I admit to sneaking off for a jaunt during lunch off in hunt of the harbour and the sea, rather than networking which is quickly becoming my least favourite thing about these events.

Part of me went for the fresh air, part of me in hunt of some salt water (more on that another time), but as ever the air – with it’s slightly wild wind – just helped to disentangle my thoughts a little, so I bounced back to the conference to find Matt and Robbie and drag them back to the harbour with all my new found questions.

What I was really thinking about quite quickly was about the role of artists as activators. Before (see previous post here), I wrote about the audience as ‘activators’ but the thread of conversation in Dunbar led me towards the way in which artists can become activators, engagers, inititating, inspiring change. I was thinking about local artists leading, potentially disseminating/translating the global to a local, community-based perspective.

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Matthew Dalziel spoke during his talk about he and Louise Scullion’s Tumadh:Immersion project, in particular I picked up on his thoughts about the amateur, and making space for unspecialised exploration and appreciation of the outdoors in one of their custom made tweeds e.g. the gathering jacket. More on that here

So, one of my first questions was a pretty big one – why art? Is art the most useful mechanism for this engagement within communities? Or perhaps, if not ‘the most’ useful mechanism, then what is it that artists bring to the table that can add a truly important dimension to active change? I guess I was trying to picture who I thought ‘should’ be getting on with this change. It’s perhaps funny that we could expect that there would just be someone, some other who would be out there sorting out these necessary changes for us as we move forward… be they councillors, government representatives, specialists, or some kind of other that separates a sense of controlling the space around us. Perhaps artists are useful in their humanising, stripping back or removing the other [man in the suit], the facelessness of percieved bureaucratic change.

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Jo Hodges spoke about her and Robbie Coleman’s project a New EIA for Natural Scotland during the artists presentations, which looked at reimaginging the planning process, more info available here

A particularly interesting point about artists, an ability to ‘engage on equal terms’, to explore collaboratively or collectively, not as architect but as instigator, connector, gatherer started to turn some cogs. Can we co-create the future of our places?

(At this point, I realised of course (with a bit of a prod) that I was talking about a very particular kind of artist, and a very particular kind of methodology and approach that I have been picking up on from artists who’s work inspires me.)

So what is it about public artists that can make them key ‘instigators’ of this change? What is inherent in their artistic practice that makes art an effective mechanism for engaging communities in a much broader conversation? What other people share these attributes and skill sets? (Planners and activists were both mentioned.) Why do some politicians/councillors/policy makers appear to lack these?

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Of course, the artist as activator needn’t – probably shouldn’t – work alone. The key skill holders, be they bridge builders, growers, are all a part of a much wider movement towards change

Agenda. This was a pretty fundamental one in our conversation, the personal agenda’s of those engaging with the community are important as to how well this relationship builds. The bridge builder that arrives and proclaims that what will fix the communities problems, is a bridge, is likely to be more personally motivated than then activator that arrives saying they want to explore and understand the problem first. Perhaps artists can also be guilty of the same problem though?

Approach. Less about a standard methodology, more about an exploration and questioning of the context/community/local.

Communication. Communicators. This has to be one of the primary roles of artists right?

Openness, questioning. There was mention during the artist talks that artist’s perhaps shouldn’t be expected to have the answers, but more to provide the right questions. We were thinking again, about how our own art practices were led by an investigatory questioning, a curiousness, without necessarily a specific end point (e.g. a bridge) in sight.

Of non-linear practices and thought processes, finding a more approachable method than one embedded in a standardised protocol. Community specific action over globalised strategy.

This is for us

Of ownership

ownership of vision

ownership of place

Of giving a sense of our own place within the wider whole, a personal, individual, tailor fit – shaped by people, not standardised policies.

Thank you to all the organisers, speakers and artists on the day, for finally kick-starting something of a thought process – I was quite miffed to have to miss the following day’s discussion!

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