Socially engaged art

After reading this weeks topic I started thinking about a collaborative work that I had recently taken part in, called Unravel to create the longest ever hand manipulated film. The artists initiating the piece (Maria Anastassiou and Chris Paul Daniels) have spent the most part of a year touring the country, visiting people in art spaces, community spaces educational institutions and even banks to reach as much diversity as possible. The aim was to create a film that anyone could contribute too, regardless of age, race, class, artist/ filmmaker or not.The finished piece will correlate with the length of Britain, from John O’Groats to Land’s End, the 874 miles being broken down into meters and subsequently converted to film frames. This will translate to a 16 hour film when finished.

It is this kind of work that Grant Kester discusses in his essay Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially-Engaged Art (Kester:2005).

‘These projects mark the emergence of a body of contemporary art practice concerned with collaborative, and potentially emancipatory, forms of dialogue and conversation. While it is common for a work of art to provoke dialogue among viewers this typically occurs in response to a finished object. In these projects conversation becomes an integral part of the work itself.’ (Kester, 2005)

An important element of the work was the conversation that flowed whilst sat round the table. The initiating artists directed some of it, to talk about the location we were in, its history and what we thought about it. The talk also reflected conditions under which we were brought together, which in my case was NO.W.HERE (an arts and filmmaking space in London). Although many of us were strangers we were quite happy to talk about (and in some cases show) our  art work and films to each other. In the case of this work, the dialogue discussed during the making of the project will form part of the final film as much of the audio from the conversations was recorded and will be mastered into the final piece when it is finished.

What I think is successful about the community aspect of this piece, is how the  artists have traveled much of the country and brought the opportunity to contribute to the work to many different communities, so that people who may not, or want to meet together typically can all have a go at contributing to the work itself. Kester States how empathy from the artists is an important feature in collaborative work and recognises that skill is needed to enter a community with a project.

The first occurs in the rapport between artists and their collaborators, especially in those situations in which the artist is working across boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or class. These relationships can, of course, be quite difficult to negotiate equitably, as the artist often operates as an outsider, occupying a position of perceived cultural authority.’ (Kester:2005)

I know many artists who avoid socially engaged art, one due to the fact they feel they are working more as a curator than an artist and secondly because they have less control over the quality of work produced. The beauty of Unravel and of hand manipulated film as a medium is ease in which experimentation and markings can be made, children as young as three have been involved in this project and I believe that their markings will be no more discernible than the ones that I made in the piece. Some may look to criticise this ‘blended’ approach that Unravel has taken, though I feel it will work really well and I sincerely look forward to the final piece. After each session participants were able to see the pieces they had worked on throughout the day, so that if they are not able to access, or sit through the 16 hours of the final version they have seen the fruits of their efforts.

Although some artists and filmmakers contributed to the piece, it is probably the first and last time the majority of the participants will have to be able to touch and engage with celluloid as a medium, due to dematerialisation currently progressing at such a rapid rate. We in fact had a very lively talk on this very fact during the course of our discussion in the midst of our creating.

You can follow the documentation from all of the events on the Unravel Blog here and below are some photos that I took on the day that I participated.


Source: 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.

This entry was posted in discursive and socially engaged art and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Socially engaged art

  1. Many thanks for this Alexa, it’s a great read. I’ve linked to this from our blog and it would be great if you could get in touch as I can’t find your e-mail. Cheers, Chris.

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