Grant Kester (2005) discusses the movement of a number of contemporary artists towards dialogue-based socially-engaged art. Here the artists avoid the tradition of object-making, instead embracing a performative, process-based approach which “involves the creative orchestration of collaborative encounters and conversations well beyond the institutional boundaries of the gallery or museum…….these exchanges can catalyse surprisingly powerful transformations in the consciousness of their participants”.
Kester hold up as a successful exemplar of this type of art practice the work of an arts collective known as Wochenklausur. This collective organised a number of 3hr cruises on Lake Zurich over a period of several weeks, to enable an eclectic group of people: politicians, journalists, sex workers and activists to have a “conversation” regarding the homeless plight (and consequent vulnerability) of drug-addicted prostitutes within the city. Kester asserts that because in this situation their statements were “insulated from direct media scrutiny, they were able to communicate with each other outside the rhetorical demands of their official status”. They were then able to move on from the expected oppositional positioning of themselves regarding morally-charged views on the use of drugs and the issue of prostitution, and in harmony develop a small but practical solution aimed at easing this social problem (a boarding house providing a safe haven).
Kester states that this emerging genre of contemporary art promotes the conversations which constitute this art form as being active evolving discourses that are emancipated beyond fixed identities, institutional viewpoints and official rhetoric, and therefore has the potential to produce new knowledge and understanding that would be beyond the limits of normal social or political communication and engagement.
Gavin Turk, 2000. Che Guevara self-portrait (online) Available at: http://gavinturk.com/artworks/image/203/ [Accessed 4/2/2011]
In contrast, Julian Stallabrass (2004) is deeply critical of this art genre: The example that he quotes is Gavin Turk’s The Che Gavara Story. Here Turk arranged a series of conversations and discussions about the life and legacy of Che, which amounted to political strategy meetings where a demonstration was organised. Part of the original intent of this piece of work was to “highlight the mismatch between Latin American Politics and the glittering banalities of ‘young British art’.
Stallabrass describes the discussions as “aimless and unfocussed” and asserts that this work is “characteristic of many socially interactive works”, in that it is less positive than one might hope for being perhaps “self-consciously futile and token”. Although highly opinionated, this author brings up an important point about the fact that much thought needs to be put into the planning of these events for them to achieve success.
“There is a trade-off between the number of participants and their diversity and likely discourse. Active participants tend to be few, elite and self-selecting. In these temporary utopian bubbles, no substantial politics can be arrived at, not least because even among those who do attend, real differences and conflicts of interest are temporarily denied or forgotten. A merely gestural politics is the likely result.”
This event was also heavily criticized by Jonathon Jones in the Guardian in 2001.
The success of this type of art, as judged by producing a positive effect on society, clearly depends on intelligent and informed organisation of the event – any accomplishment being exquisitely dependent on the participants, both their status within their particular filed of expertise, or as good representatives of their social group, and indeed the balance of the different types of participants invited.
Kester, G., 2005. Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially Engaged Art. In Z. Kocur and S. Leung, eds. Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 76-100.
Stallabrass, J., 2004. Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 119-135.
Jones, J., 2001. Glad to be Che (online) Available at <http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2001/jan/22/artsfeatures.argentina> [Acessed 4/2/2011].